Let’s Change How We Speak to Dancers About Injury Prevention

Let’s Change How We Speak to Dancers About Injury Prevention

I’ll start by stating the obvious: Dancers get injured. A lot.

Studies show us that the injury rate in dance is similar to that of collision sports and, while each study presents a different statistic, the injury rate is often somewhere between 60-100%.

Not to mention that you can’t completely rely on studies that include self-reported data, because many dancers don’t report getting injured.

THIS study, outlined in Science Daily says:

injury rate for ballet dancers over an eight-month period was 61 percent. This is comparable to rates found in other studies for athletes in collision sports such as football and wrestling. The average time lost because of a ballet injury was 10.5 days, with the actual time loss ranging from one to 87 days.

In THIS study, the injury incidence in professional Irish dancers was shown to be 76%.

And in THIS study of young ballet dance students, of the 476 students in being observed, 438 injuries were recorded. The injury incidence rate was 0.8 per 1,000 dance hours.

If you dance, you will get hurt.

Am I scaring you? I’m only doing it to make a point. How does hearing these statistics make you feel? Are you inspired now to go out and take care of your joints? Or are you paralyzed, discouraged, and unsure what to do about it?

That’s my point. Scary stats aren’t enough to inspire action. Telling dancers they need strategies to prevent injuries doesn’t count as guidance. One-off injury prevention workshops don’t give long-term support that dancers need.

THIS study done in the UK looked at dancers’ perspectives towards injuries and pain, and one conclusion was:

Dance injury rates do not appear to be decreasing significantly, despite greater awareness and the promotion of the “healthier dancer” in dance training schools, universities and among professionals in the UK.

The way we’re presenting injury prevention to dancers is not effective enough.

There’s enough research supporting cross-training to make it mainstream, yet even the dancers who cross-train get injured.

And fear mongering, kind of like I’m doing now (it’s only to make a point!), isn’t an effective means of getting dancers interested in preventing injuries, it only makes them focus on their fears.

Is it really helpful to focus on pain? To be told that you will get hurt if you don’t do x-y-z? Has being scared into trying to prevent injuries ever really inspired you?

Michael Mullin’s Facebook page is always full of gems like this one below, which I’ve been making a conscious effort more recently to be aware of in my own practice:

michael mullin FB quote

Pain science shows us that focusing on pain only draws our attention to it more, making it more pronounced and threatening in our minds. The more we fear pain, the more we try to stiffen ourselves to prevent feeling it, and the more we alter our movement patterns in compensatory ways that can cause even higher risk of injury.

Please watch this TED talk by Lorimer Mosely, author of Explain Pain, which summarizes nicely why things hurt (and read his book, too):

What if we stopped focusing on pain and injuries?

And what if we stopped putting the onus on the dancer to change they way they do things, and instead, change how WE work with dancers.

It’s a mistake to keep telling our students the same things over and over expecting them to change, while we ourselves refuse to adapt to their situation. We don’t study dance science for our own personal gain after-all, it’s to help the dancers. Isn’t it?

Our language needs to change.

What if, instead of naming programs as “injury prevention screens” we called them “performance optimization screens?” They are the exact same program only with a different name.

What if instead of saying “don’t do this or you will become injured!”, we said, “If you try to do things this way instead, you will be creating better patterns of moving that will help you perform better and stronger”.

Subconsciously we react differently to hearing words like pain, injuries, don’t, not, and bad. Over time, constantly hearing these words can start to change the way we feel about ourselves, and limits our potential.

Take the emphasis off the threat. Let dancers focus on their love of dance.

aaron swanson PT quote

Does inducing fear help reduce pain in the same way that encouraging dancers to experience gratitude does?

Consider that you’re trying to motivate a dance student, or yourself for that matter, to start a cross-training or therapeutic exercise program. How would you word it to them?

Would you a) Attempt to instill a fear of spraining an ankle if you don’t do it, or b) Express how  the exercises will make you stronger and better at dancing.

I think it’s obvious.

Changing your language, both to yourself and to others, is a challenge. It requires that you are completely aware of every word coming out of your mouth. This seems unrealistic but it is possible, and this subtle switch can make a massive difference, and is 100% worth the effort, with zero cost.

I have made this switch myself, and it drove me crazy when I realized how my words could be sending the wrong subconscious message to my clients, and to myself, despite my best intentions.

They say you become what you focus on. I know this to be true.

When I was recovering from an eating disorder, the hardest part was trying to teach myself how to eat again in “normal” portion sizes, without becoming completely obsessive about it. I’m sure if you’ve been through one yourself you can relate to the challenges of acclimating back to being a regular person who eats regularly.

Food was on my mind constantly. When would I eat next? How much would I eat? What would I eat? How many calories? How many carbs? How much protein? Did I deserve to eat that many carbs? Should I go exercise before or after eating? Is that too many calories or not enough? And then how many hours should I wait until I eat my next meal? What should I have for my next meal? Should I just skip eating today altogether??

When I reflect back on the hours wasted and the mental energy spent every day just thinking about food, it’s no wonder I was always exhausted and injured.

It wasn’t until I finally decided to stop thinking about food that I was able to eat like a “regular” person again. Canada is not a third world country. There is ample food here. I had no need to worry for hours each day about where my next meal would come from.

When it comes to injuries, constantly obsessing about them and their prevention is counterproductive in a similar way that my food planning obsession was. It’s a waste of mental energy that can be used more productively.

Don’t get me wrong, we need people to think about injury prevention, but it’s not the dancers who should be worried. It’s us- The scientists, the physiotherapists, the trainers, teachers, parents, and doctors to think about these things, maybe even worry about them a little, but only so that the dancers don’t have to.

Let the dancers worry about dancing, and we, the dance educators can carry the burden of their injuries. Because we’re geeks and we’re into it, and our bodies aren’t the ones on the line.

We, the educators, trainers, and therapists, need to learn all we can about prevention, but not only prevention- We also need to learn how to communicate this information to dancers in a way that doesn’t make them afraid, but empowers them to become stronger. Because the fear and obsession tactics don’t work.

In my first year at Ryerson University I remember that we were asked what our biggest fears were, as dancers. Our response? A unanimous fear of becoming hurt and no longer being able to dance.

What causes this fear of injuries?

You’re afraid of injuries because you don’t know enough about how your body works to be able to heal yourself without an entire team of specialists (which you can’t afford).

Injuries are scary because of the time off you don’t want to take, for which you will have nothing else to fill it with, because dance is all you know.

You’re afraid to become hurt less because of physical pain, and more because you tempt losing a piece of your identity.

You don’t want to think about the fact that you can’t afford rehabilitation fees.

And you’re afraid of injuries because you perceive that teachers will judge you as inferior for becoming hurt (“if your technique was better this wouldn’t have happened to you!”).

So you push these fears to a dark corner in your mind so that you can dance without limits. When you’re not injured you feel invincible, and it feels good to dance like you’re invincible. The best dancers to watch must be the ones who feel invincible because they don’t hold anything back.

You don’t need the constant reminders that you will get hurt, you need goals for performance, a well designed strength training program that is actually fun to do and that helps you feel immediate reward so that you’ll want to keep doing it. You need to be educated on how your body works so you can enjoy using it and, by understanding your limits, you can respect them.

What I feel is lacking for most dancers, unless part of a professional ballet company, is a safety net that has your back when you do get injured. Because injuries will happen. We as educators know that we can help dancers to get injured less often, but it still happens.

By safety net I mean a system that ensures that a dancer doesn’t need to be afraid of becoming injured, because they will have access to the support they need financially, emotionally, physically, and mentally in that situation.

It’s not the dancer that needs to change, it’s you and I. How we educate, train, and make ourselves a part of a dancers’ rehab process. We need to change the system rather than expect the dancers to fit into the one that currently exists, and often fails them.

Anyone who has become injured knows that it doesn’t just hurt the physical body, but it can trigger deep depression and cataclysmic feelings of low self-worth. You feel like you’re losing your identity when you lose your ability, if not only temporarily, to dance.

I am fortunate to live in Canada and that my father works for the government.

Had to insert a Justin Trudeau pic in here somewhere

While I was in school, I was covered under his benefits and could get my physio fees reimbursed through his insurance policy. Physio which, by the way, was not effective because I had no idea how to choose a therapist that would fit my needs.

Despite this accessibility, my rehabilitation experience was not good and, eventually I maxed out my parents’ coverage to the point that I stopped going because I could not afford it anymore. I even paid for treatments out of my own pocket that were ineffective.

I felt bad about myself for not getting better. I felt judged by my teachers and felt the pity of my peers. I felt guilty that I had used all of my parents’ insurance coverage and still could not dance.

It could have been much different if a system was in place to help. If I didn’t have to make decisions alone that I knew nothing about. I was alone and ignorant. Alone, even though I’m sure every dancer in my class had gone through a similar struggle.

At the IADMS conference this past October, I distinctly remember one presentation showing us evidence that insufficient coping skills was one of the top reasons dancers get injured. I can relate.

Most of us don’t have a support system unless we go out and create one for ourselves. We all have the right to a safety net. An incredibly supportive, effective, affordable network.

What if each dance program/school had a network that consisted of a rehabilitation team, a strength and conditioning team, and a therapist.

Welcome to my perfect world where:

1. Each dance school/program has a built in a budget for student rehabilitation. This budgeted amount is established knowing that dancers will get hurt- Not if, but when. This  allows dancers to receive a certain minimum amount of treatment for their injuries, and a subsidized rate beyond that amount, so that they can focus on their dancing without fear.

2. Strength and conditioning is a mandatory part of the curriculum. Not a bootcamp, Barre fitness style class, but a sensible, periodized, dance-specific program taught by a competent coach who would have as much a role in education as supervising exercise,  empowering dancers to become their best while feeling good about themselves and their abilities.

3. The dance program has it’s own  team of rehabilitation specialists. They observe dance classes, communicate with the other teachers and faculty, and, most importantly, aren’t only into making money with fancy treatments and passive therapies. Did you know that some physios can make hundreds of dollars by prescribing an injection that takes them 5 minutes to administer? Makes it pretty tempting to do this than work long-term with a patient to teach them how they came to be injured.

4. Dance teachers are educated on how to speak and interact with their students.  They are taught to avoid negative language and help them adopt a growth mindset, set goals, and raise their self-worth rather than make them feel bad about their abilities.

Imagine how reassuring it would be to dance at a school that had this kind of support system. The dancers in this program would thrive knowing that if their worst fears came true, they wouldn’t have to deal with it alone. It would allow them to dance with more confidence, not subjected to inappropriate language and fear mongering with no talk of solutions.

I write this because a dancer I know has been going through some hard times in his last year university and a system like this could have prevented his current situation, as well as that of many dancers.

Meet Michael.

I “met” Michael via email (probably chatting initially about deadlifts and hamstring injuries, two things we have in common).

Despite his best intentions, desire to learn how to take care of his body, and love of strength training, he became badly injured and has now accumulated thousands of dollars in medical bills he can’t afford to pay, and is still trying to get back on his feet.

Michael’s not an idiot. He’s way smarter than I was at his age.

Michael didn’t do anything wrong. He only wanted to work hard and succeed at something he loves, but he didn’t have the support and education he needed to overcome his injuries.

When his physiotherapy program was not helping him improve adequately, he didn’t know whether he should call it quits and find someone new, because that isn’t taught in school.

When he was cleared to go back to dance, still in pain, he was not educated on how to know when to rest, something we all need an education in.

He loves strength training and knows it’s good for him to do, but like most students, he wan not able to afford supervision and a customized program that would have ensured his cross-training was helping him, not just grinding him into the dirt (unlike other collegiate athletics programs which almost always include strength and conditioning training).

Michael didn’t get adequate recovery because he felt guilty about resting, and felt judged for sitting out. He didn’t have a better plan so he pushed through his injuries to perform in a show which, by the end, found him unable to walk without pain.

While he will probably look back a few years from now and see his situation so clearly, it’s not so easy to make the right choices when your life is ruled by judgement, competition, and pressure to succeed, with little support.

Michael needed a system.

He needed better quality physio that insisted upon adequate recovery, guidance for his cross-training, financial aid, compassion from his teachers,  and to be re-assured that  he would have a  smooth transition back into dance if he followed their advice.

Image result for dance injuries

He needed a trustworthy system with this kind of incredible communication between rehab, cross-training, and teaching, with the budget to support him so he didn’t have the financial burden at the forefront of his mind.

Of course there are some challenges this model poses.

The big one: Money. Where does this budget to subsidize rehab, training, and education come from?

Another biggie: Time. Convincing the head of a dance program that it is necessary to make time for screening and strength and conditioning in the already packed curriculum isn’t an easy sell.

This system is my dream. Just give me 10 years and I’ll make it happen ;).

How is Michael now coping with his situation? He’s started a Go Fund Me campaign to help pay for his medical expenses and get back to dancing. It takes courage to put oneself out there and ask for money. I certainly would rather have given up completely than ask for help.

But Michael shouldn’t have to be asking for money. Dance students should not have to reach out to their friends and strangers on the internet because they can’t afford physical therapy. That said, this is Michael’s reality, and if you’d like to help him out, please contribute to his campaign. Better yet, reach out to UC Irvine where he studies and ask them to consider creating a better support system for their dance students.

Michael has been inspired by his situation to start a charity that would support dancers through times of need like his. For now, his Go Fund Me campaign is his charity, and if he meets his fundraising goal, he also hopes to donate to a charity that does something similar to support dancers. Please help him out, and share this post.

And if you are aware or organizations that support dancers, please let me (and Michael) know about them. Many of us are not aware what resources are available to us, so post them in the comments below.

What do you think? Am I too idealistic? (I for sure am, but I’m not changing). Can you relate to Michael’s experience? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

And yes, realize that I used a lot of negative verbiage in this post, but it was mostly to make a point!

 

 

 

 

Test Your Dance Training and Fitness IQ [20 questions]

Test Your Dance Training and Fitness IQ [20 questions]

A few weeks ago I was in Pittsburgh for the 2015 International Association for Dance Medicine and Science Annual Meeting. This was my first IADMS conference, although I’ve been wanting to go since 2012 when I initially heard of the organization.

It. Was. Awesome.

Everyone in Pittsburgh is super friendly. I love America. I really do.

The hotel gave us free unlimited fruit (which I definitely didn’t take advantage of everyday). At the conference itself we got unlimited free coffee (which I didn’t also take advantage of…). And I got to hang out with dance-science nerds all day for 4 days. Dance science majors, PhDs, and other professionals who work with dancers in a big way. It wasn’t intimidating at all. But as Julien Smith says, “Strive to be the stupidest person in the room”, meaning, try to hang out with people smarter than you. Mission accomplished, IADMS. And how.

There was a lot of sarcasm in that paragraph. Apologies.

Another bonus was that I got to meet the actual faces of people I’ve only ever interacted with via email and social media, including some DTP readers, and it wasn’t creepy at all to meet my internet friends. The internet is so awesome for connecting with people (but that doesn’t mean you’ll see me on a dating site any time soon).

laurenmonikasuperheroes

Lauren Warnecke and I at the IADMS opening reception. Dance-fitness super heroes.

Back story to this photo: Lauren Warnecke, Catherine Tully, and I were out for dinner, and while Catherine was in the washroom, a server asked Lauren and I if we were super heroes (apparently there was some kind of Marvel related show going on next-door at a convention center and he assumed we were part of it). Must be all those deadlifts because neither of us were wearing our capes. Hence the obligatory super hero photo. I love Pittsburgh!

Enough trivialities.

IADMS was a great, but here’s what I left the conference feeling: It’s all very well and good that we, the people passionate about the dance sciences, are able to network and share our experiences and wisdom with each other, but the high costs and travel required to attend conferences like this are excluding a very important  group of people: Dancers.

We all want to make accessibility of information, affordable training, and therapies more available to dancers, and we ‘re all passionate about it, but the actual doing is lacking.

How do we make information on best-practices for dancers more readily available to dancers? How do we provide dancers with affordable, high-quality supplementary training? And how do we give them access to the rehabilitation and therapy they need (especially in countries like the US where insurance doesn’t always cover therapists).

You could say I’m pretty passionate about accessibility. This accessibility issue is what my career path is based upon after all.

So, with a head full of science, and inspired to share it all with the dancers who need it, I created the Dance Stronger Quiz. Because it’s the very least I can do to help make this information available, in a (hopefully) fun format.

dance stronger quizThe DS quiz is designed to test your knowledge on what evidence shows are the best practices to improve dance performance and prevent injuries, but it also will teach you a bunch or new stuff(or be a nice review for some of you).

–>>Check out the Dance Stronger Quiz here <<–

When you’re done, you can get the answer key sent to you via email, and it would be great if you let me know how you did in the comments below the quiz. Nothing like a little friendly competition 😉

Oh, and in other news…

WANT TO LISTEN TO AN INTERVIEW I JUST DID?

Yeah you do! I can’t bear to listen to myself talking and I haven’t listened to this interview since it was recorded, but people have been telling me that it was pretty good, dare I even say AMAZING. You’ll be the judge.

I had the delightful opportunity to speak with Annett Bone of DancePreneuring Studio about some things that I give a damn about. In particular, enjoying longevity in dance without messing yourself up.

Dysfunctional Relationship podcast Monika Volkmar

Annett was one of the original trial members of the Dance Stronger program.  She is an absolute gem, and her podcast covers topics relating to dance, entrepreneuring, and living a creative life.

We had an excellent chat about how to adopt a mindset that will help you succeed at dance long-term, and you’ll hear me talk all about the many ways I screwed up, got injured, and why I started the Dance Training Project in the first place.

–>>Check it out here!<<–

And while I’m giving updates on the various places on the web I’ve been doing stuff, maybe you didn’t get the memo that I’ve closed up my training studio on Adelaide St. to join the personal training team at Sports Medicine Specialists.

SMS logoSMS has a program called Dynamic Functional Training (DFT) which allows a part of your training to be covered through your insurance. YAY! So while I am happy/sad about leaving my training studio to join SMS- sad because I no longer am able to offer a lower studentcharity rate for my university dancers- I’m mostly happy because now you can train with me through your (or your parents’) insurance.

DFT sessions are 30 minutes in length. To join the DFT program you first need to see a physio/MD at SMS. They will then refer you to me [or another fine trainer at SMS, but please choose me :)]. These 30 minute sessions act as “out-sourced physio”, meaning that rather than the physio work on exercises with you, you do them with me. It’s a pretty awesome program, and it can save you money if you have health benefits.

If you live in Toronto and are interested in learning more, get in touch with me for more info.

QUICK RECAP

Because this post was pretty random, here’s the jist:

 **That was an Outkast reference. Outkast rocks!

 

10 Reasons You Should be Doing Turkish Get-Ups

10 Reasons You Should be Doing Turkish Get-Ups

Screenshot_2015-08-25-08-20-30~2 My favourite part of dancing is rolling around on the floor. Hell, rolling on the floor is my favourite part of life. —–>

So of course I love Turkish get-ups (TGUs).

The Turkish get-up is an exercise that systematically takes you from lying on the floor, up to standing, while holding a heavy weight over your face. Like a badass.

TGUs are one of the exercises that I feel has great carryover for dancers to their art and athleticism. Not only are they useful for getting you strong and mobile, they look pretty bad ass, too. Which is important, obviously.

In my online training group over at DanceStronger.com, the exercise that gets the most number of questions is the TGU:

“What does this thing even do?

“What’s the point?”

“What muscles am I working?”

“Why is it Turkish?”

Today I’m going to break down why  I feel that the Turkish get-up is one of the most useful exercises for dancers, and how to start working on them so you can reap the benefits for yourself.

TGU 1

TGU 2

TGU 3

TGU 4

TGU 5

TGU 6

TGU 7

TGU 8

Looks fun right?

10 Ways TGUs Make You a Better Dancer

1) Creating and controlling rotation

Dance is all about rotation. Creating it, resisting it, trying not to get dizzy and fall on stage.

TGUs are pretty similar- The whole movement requires that you create and control rotation, and not fall over. But with a heavy weight over your face.

From the very first roll portion of the TGU, you need to be able to coordinate lats, glutes, and obliques to roll up onto your elbow. If they aren’t coordinating, it turns into more of a crunch or a side bending movement. This compensation can happen in dance too- Moving in another plane to compensate for a lack of rotation.

A good example of this is when a dancer lacks sufficient hip rotation (think turnout), other ways of mimicking hip rotation include to tip the pelvis or hike a hip to create the illusion of more turnout.

A successful TGU requires you to differentiate between rotation and other cheaty ways of moving.

2) TGUs are a self-limiting exercise

A self limiting exercise is one that gives you immediate feedback as to whether you’re performing it correctly. This is quite useful, especially if you don’t have supervision.

As described beautifully by Gray Cook from his book Movement:

Used correctly, self-limiting exercises improve poor movements and maintain functional movement quality. These exercises are challenging and produce a high neural load, which is to say they require engagement and increased levels of motor control at the conscious and reflexive level.

Anytime we don’t acknowledge our weakest links or confront them in training, we demonstrate the same behavior that caused our collective functional movement patterns to erode in the first place. Embedded in each workout, the self-limiting activities continually whisper the message that we cannot become stronger than our weakest links.

self limiting exercise

from Movement, by Gray Cook

How is a TGU self limiting? Well, there’s the pressure not to drop a heavy thing on your face, for one.

If you’re not getting your body under the weight efficiently, you will feel it. A great variation for those just learning the TGU is to balance a shoe on your fist.

I suggest for beginners to use the shoe variation to practice getting under the weight first, before loading it up. If you drop the shoe off your first, you get immediate feedback as to whether your arm is in a straight line with gravity, or not.You want that straight line. Your face wants that straight line, because it wants to stay pretty.

Here’s Perry Nickleston of Stop Chasing Pain showing the shoe variation:

3) Develops useful upper body strength and can help rehab/prevent shoulder issues

Notice that I didn’t say functional? I don’t want to go on the “functional training rant” so I’ll send you over to Dean Somerset, because he can say it better than I.

The TGU has similar upper body demands as dance, such as being asked to roll on the floor, and stand up, land in a roll to the floor, balance on one arm, etc.

And I’m sorry to say this, but science has shown that most dancers (not all of you lovely people!) have brutal upper body strength.

upper body endurance danceI’m currently working with a dancer who says that rolling on the floor, and having push herself up off the floor from a lying position really hurts her elbows. Why? Because she doesn’t know how to coordinate her obliques and shoulders together with her lower body, so the path of least resistance just happens to be the bones that articulate to create her elbow. Not cool!

Fortunately, TGUs can help with this issue.

Not only that, but in a TGU you’re using both arms in two completely different ways- The supporting arm is working in a closed chain, creating rotational movement by pushing into the floor, while the top arm is working open chain, developing shoulder stability in an overhead position integrated with the whole body.

IMG_5859In the photo above, my bottom arm is closed chain (contact with the floor), and the top arm is working open chain (free!).

The sequence in which muscles fire changes depending on whether you’re working in a closed or open chain, and with the TGU you get both at the same time. That’s a lot of awesome stuff happening at once!

In dance, even ballet sometimes, you will need to support your body with your arms (or just one arm), in an awkward, rotated position, and sometimes you need to lift people. So you’d better train both those abilities outside the studio.

If you have cranky shoulders, or too much shoulder mobility as is common in many dancers (making dislocation a dangerous possibility), the TGU just might be your money exercise. I’ve heard a colleague of  mine refer to the TGU as one of his favourite shoulder rehab exercises, and I can see why.

In fact, when my shoulders are feeling crappy, TGUs often help. And from all the typing I do for this blog, sometimes my right wrist gets sore, but TGUs always seem to make it feel better.

Dean Somerset agrees, and I quote him from THIS excellent piece he wrote on the TGU:

“You also have to stabilize the kettlebell from rotating around your wrist, which takes a lot of rotator cuff involvement, making this a much more involved shoulder training movement compared to endless external rotations with a band.”

So there you go- A totally badass shoulder rehab exercise that doesn’t require elastic bands or cables. You’re welcome.

sad rot cuff

4) Mimics dance movement

It’s like a weighted dance-move.

The way the TGU felt like a dance move was what initially attracted me to it.

It’s important for dancers to understand why an exercise will help them become stronger for dance and, because this movement has some moments that feel “dancey” it helps the dancer to feel more motivated to do actually do it.

Can you see how this:

DSC_9360

Is similar to THIS:

DSC_0274You don’t have to be a genius to see the parallels. (But apparently you do need to be a genius to spell parallel correctly the first time…)

Building a solid TGU will also help immensely with floor-work in dance. If  you have the strength to roll off the floor with a heavy thing over your face, you will for sure have the requisite strength and coordination to roll around on the ground and be in complete control, without screwing any of your joints.

And if you happen to be a bit more of a pointy person, then the more lightly you can roll on the floor the happier your protruding bones will be. I happen to not be a very pointy person. My tibial tuberosity is pretty much non-existant.

Unless you’re me!

I also have enough muscle on my back and shoulders to cushion them, and I can’t even round my lower back (lumbar flex) enough to feel those vertebrae grinding on the floor. I was built to roll on the ground. But I seem to be more an exception than the rule, so having the strength to not weight bear completely on all your pointy bits will likely help you appreciate floor work a bit more.

5) Exposes all your limitations

This is a good thing. It’s good to put your ego in it’s place once in a while. Like when you go to a dance class and every exercise is 9 bars of 17 counts and you can’t pick any of it up so you laugh your way through class. Not that that’s ever happened to me. This week…

But anyway, there are so many individual phases of the TGU, each capable of revealing your weaknesses. Good news, because now you know exactly what you can work on and you can start to become better, stronger, faster, and all that Daft Punk tells us to become.

For example, in the first roll to elbow you can tell a lot about someone’s preferred way to rotate. Are the obliques creating the torso rotation along with help from the lats and glutes? Or do you create momentum from your neck, thrusting your ribs, or kicking up a leg? These habits are all quite common, and the sooner you can become aware of them the better because if you’re cheating rotation in a TGU, you’re probably cheating it every where else.

6) Builds insane amounts of body awareness

As Tony Gentilcore references in THIS hilariously informative article, Gray Cook has referred to the Turkish get-up as being loaded-yoga (which to me means coffee-yoga-bacon). Yoga being an activity that requires you to calm your mind, breathe, and feel the positions you’re moving through.

In fact, one of my favourite experimental sessions I’ve done recently involved super-setting TGUs with sun salutations. It was all kinds of bendy-strong awesome.

So back to body awareness. It’s pretty obvious- The demands of the TGU to move through multiple planes, while centering your body efficiently under a weight, and not dislocating a shoulder or getting your face smashed require that you know exactly what each part of your body is doing at each phase of the movement.

I don’t think I need to make a strong case for how important body awareness is for dancers. Dance IS body awareness.

7) Helpful for teaching anti-extension

I don’t have stats on this, but I’d say that one of the most common issues dancers need to overcome in their training is learning how NOT to extend when they don’t need to. By extend I mean arching the lower back and allowing the ribcage to flare up, or extending the neck by thrusting the chin forward and up.

These are all helpful cheats to create forward momentum and find stability, but they aren’t highly effective long-term I’m afraid.

I love the TGU for teaching anti-extension because it allows you to develop this awareness in all planes of movement- Rotation, laterally, and in the saggital plane (forward and back).

It is common on the first roll up to the elbow for trainees to accomplish the rotation by arching through the lower back, and flaring the ribcage. You can see a good demo of this in the video below:

Learning to control excessive extension in the context of a TGU  is incredibly helpful for teaching dancers to own the true power of their anterior core in conjunction with rotational movement, a stressful environment (remember that big ass weight over your head?), with a heavy demand for shoulder and hip control without using their common bendy dance cheats.

8) Fundamentals, transitional moments, and forward/backwards movement in one exercise

Turkish get-ups are like watching a baby grow up in fast motion.

I’m into teaching movement developmentally, progressing from lying supine, rolling over, crawling, trying to stand up and then stepping.

Unfortunately, as we grow older and learn new ways of moving (or not moving), we can “forget” these helpful developmental phases, which were so important in teaching us to move efficiently and pain-free when we were young.

Re-learning to roll and crawl can have an amazing effect on your physical performance, as well as your body’s well-being and risk of injury, and being able to crawl and roll are essential for TGU mastery. It rewires your nervous system with the fundamentals it needs to do complex movements more easily.

Ignoring the fundamentals of movement is like trying to put icing on a cake that you haven’t baked yet. And as much as a bowl of icing mixed into cake batter sounds awesome, it’s not a cake no matter how much you pretend.

As Dr. Kathy Dooley writes in this excellent article on crawling, as babies we instinctively needed to master crawling before moving to the next movement milestone, but years of sitting and poor movement patterning can rob us of our right to crawl:

Baby You knew how to [crawl] without being taught. But you didn’t do it before your joints were backed up with perfectly equilibrated stability points. Your anterior and posterior functional slings worked in unison on a stable trunk.

Then, you were stuck behind a desk for 12 years of schooling. Add potentially decades to that if you have a desk job. So, jumping right into quadruped ambulation may not go well. People who crawl after years in absentia end up with joint pain.

Remember: Baby You used perfect stability points on a stable trunk that Adult You currently may be missing.

Crunches don’t do it, no matter how many you do. Baby You didn’t do crunches. Trunk stability will have to be earned back like Baby You earned it. Learn to breathe again, as you did at 4 months.

Another beauty of the TGU lies the transitions. Has any dance teacher ever emphasized the importance of the transitions between movements? I bet.

TGUs are an excellent opportunity to own the transitional phases, and you’ll feel immediately if they aren’t happening smoothly because remember that heavy thing right above your face? Slow down these transitions and have fun getting ridiculously strong.

And then, after you’ve transitioned from lying, to kneeling, you have to stand up integrating bipedal propulsion into the equation. And THEN you have to reverse the movement all the way to the floor. The word “retrograde” still gives me nightmares… Thank you improv class.

9) Promotes cross-lateralization and addresses asymmetries

Lateralization refers to how some cognitive functions tend to be dominated by one side of the brain or the other.

Asymmetries is another word you need to be a genius to spell correctly the first time.

Cross-lateralization refers to the ability to coordinate the right and left sides of the body. In this article  Sharon Krull explains the importance of crossing the midline and cross lateral movement for the healthy function of our brains as we develop :

“Crossing the midline” refers to the ability to move a part of the body– such as a hand, foot or eye– into the space of the other hand, foot or eye. Being able to cross the midline indicates that the child has reached the point in his or her development that the right and left side of the brain are working in tandem.

Unfortunately, sometimes we “forget” how to perform cross-lateral movements, or we get stuck moving in patterns wherein we only cross the midline in one way. In dance, we can get stuck in patterns like this, such as always turning on our preferred leg (generally the left leg, turning to the right).

It is completely normal for dancers to develop lateral biases, but as explained in this review, working consistently to re-establish some sense of symmetry might be useful for preventing injuries.

“In an ideal world, dancers would be totally balanced in their physical and technical training on both sides of their body. They would be able to perform any of these dance tasks equally on either leg and to either side, and thus provide a “perfect,” symmetrically balanced instrument for the choreographer. Realistically, it is more likely that a trained dancer has an asymmetrical body structure, a preference for learning and performing specific skills on one leg or one side, and a dance technique that is functionally asymmetrical—that is, dance skills are performed more proficiently on one leg or side than the other.”

And as the same review describes, we can see that dancers tend to favor using one leg for support, depending on the movement taking place,

“Strong right turning preferences were identified in both studies, but this right bias did not necessarily carry over to other skills, which varied between right and left. A right preference for balance was evident when balance was challenged (as in piqué) When range of motion (ROM) was the issue, however (in battement à la seconde and ronde de jambe the balance preference switched to the left leg.”

I’d like to see a ballet include fouettee turns to the left. Yeah… One day.

So how do TGUs come into play? A well executed Turkish get-up requires the brain to coordinate the right and left sides of the body (and brain), and seeing how dance causes us to move in preferred patterns, especially when rehearsing repertoire, there are likely a lot of cross-lateral gaps that need  some filling.

To sum up: Practicing TGUs on both sides is good for lopsided dancer brain. When you try them out, be aware which side is easier for you. Can you rotate better to the right or to the left? Which direction do you turn better to in dance? *hint* the results will probably add up.

10) TGUs can help you improve your balance

We all just want balance like THIS:

 Drool.

So how can TGUs help with balance?

As described here by Strong First leader Brandon Hetzler, the TGU stimulates all 3 systems that contribute to balance:

  • Vestibular system– You must know the orientation of the body with respect to gravity and be able to adjust your position accordingly.
  • Proprioceptive system– You must know where your body is in space throughout the movement.
  • Visual system– You must have your eyes on the weight throughout the movement.

You cannot get that bang for your buck doing weird “functional” things on a bosu ball.

How to get started

So I bet by now you’re totally stoked to start adding TGUs into your life. But hold on there, cowboy. Don’t just grab a weight and start flinging it around. I recommend to break down the movement into it’s individual chunks, and mastering each one before moving on to the next.

Here’s how I would break it down (others may not agree with me, but that’s ok, there’s a lot of ways to skin a cat):

1) Practice the first roll up to elbow on it’s own. Initially getting off the floor is arguably the hardest part of the whole movement. If you can do this easily with bodyweight, add in a shoe, as demonstrated in the video above. When you stop dropping the shoe, add in a reasonably weighted kettlebell. When you can do 5 reps with a weight, move along to the next step.

2) Up to halfway. While probably not technically the halfway point, I like to call the high bridge position half-way. Some people don’t care about the high bridge, but I do. You need a good high bridge in dance, so I say you should do it. I like to visualize my hips stretching out at the top of the bridge.

It’s not wrong not to do this phase, but you’re going to use this position in dance, so I recommend that you practice it in a TGU. When you feel solid going up to high bridge and back down with your bodyweight, try adding the shoe, then try adding the weight, same as before.

DSC_0274

High bridge position

3) You’re ready to stand up! Same progression as before: Wrap your brain around the movement, use a shoe, and then add in a weight.

As Mike Roberston recommends in his article HERE:

DO NOT go out and try this Day 1 with a heavy kettlebell. Work through the positions/steps with body weight first, or even with a shoe on your fist. Please take the time to really feel this lift out.  I often tell my clients to pause for a 2 count at each position, as if they’re getting their picture taken at a photo shoot.  Beginners are notorious for blowing through this lift, and not really milking all of its benefits.  When in doubt, slow it down!

I agree 100%. One of my favourite ways to really juice all the vitamin T out of a get-up is to hold each individual position for one or two breaths. And I mean real deep breaths with complete exhalations that make your CNS want to spaz.

You probably won’t be doing more than one complete repetition per side with weight, and you shouldn’t feel totally destroyed by the end of that one rep, so choose a weight that feels reasonable, and that doesn’t make you fear for your life.

I’m also going to add in that it is highly valuable to get a skilled professional to coach you through a get-up at least once.

Initially, I learned from a Youtube video, and I was doing ok, but realize that this is not a complete education. There are many subtle nuances and ways to tweak your technique that change the way it feels, and the efficacy of the movement.

And from a general fitness perspective, a lot of typical “gym” exercises don’t ever allow us to create rotational movement, using all sorts of points of contact with our bodies on the floor, providing for a very rich sensory experience (while looking totally badass). I urge you to get out of saggital plane only workouts, and out of the seated exercise machines.

Get down on the floor and get up. And then back down. Feel the rotation necessary, coordinating efficiently from all parts of your body.

Your homework

Try the first roll + shoe. Do it 5 times without dropping the shoe. See if you can accomplish this in a week (you totally can). Progress it from there. Let me know how it goes in the comments below.

The Turkish get-up is an exercise I include in my latest brain child, Dance Stronger– A book + training program + community that gives you the tools to develop dance-specific strength for improved performance and less injuries. Check it out and see how to include the TGU into your training routine.

Click the image above to get the first two chapters of Dance Stronger for free. Yay!

Should You Stretch or Strengthen Your Quads? [4 exercises to try]

Should You Stretch or Strengthen Your Quads? [4 exercises to try]

dance legsThe way teachers sometimes talk about our quads, it’s easy to feel like we’re expected to dance without them.

“Don’t grip your quads!”

“The movement should come from underneath the leg, use your hamstrings, not your quads!”

“Don’t do squats, you don’t want to over-develop your quads.”

“Your quads are too big.” (FYI if a teacher ever tells you that, find a new teacher! Just my opinion…)

I’ve got news for you: Your quads aren’t bad.

And I’m going to explain why in today’s post.

NO MUSCLES OR MOVEMENTS ARE “BAD”

Just like pronation isn’t bad. You may be warned against using your quads or pronating your feet, but you actually need these important muscles and movements to function optimally and avoid injury in dance.

You need to use your quads to dance, and ideally they should be strong. Trying to dance without your quads is just silly so you can stop feeling bad about it right now.

I’m talking about the “Lift your leg using your hamstring” cue during developpe or grand battement front and side, and other such movements. Sorry, it just isn’t possible. Your hamstrings don’t do that.

I’m sure you’ve had teachers tell you that to lift the leg, you shouldn’t be using your quads, but rather your inner thighs (adductors), hamstrings, and butt. And if you feel your quads “gripping” that’s bad bad bad and you will get big, bad, bulky quads as a result.

I have muscular legs. It’s my genetic programming since puberty and even before. I’m athletic. I’m not a perfect ballet body-type.

As such, I was always told that this was because I was working the wrong way. My technique was all backwards. I was using my quads too much and that I need to stop because my quads would get too big and I wouldn’t be hired as a dancer. It made me feel awful about myself, my body, and my abilities as a dancer.

I’m sure many of you can relate to this fear of quad over-use.

But for the record, that’s all BS. You quads are supposed to lift your leg. Let them do their dang job.

THE QUAD-FEAR IS EVERYWHERE

Here are a few examples of this quad fear mindset from around the net:

A Q&A from balletdancersguide.com:

Q: “For two years I took a ballet class for one day a week. And my teacher told me I had extreme potential to be a professional ballet dancer. So she told me to sign up for the alabama ballet school which I did. In january she let me en pointe but the pointe classes weren’t that good so I had to practice and learn by myself at home. Everything went well except for developpes and grand battements. I used my quads instead of my inner thigh muscles. now i’m trying to figure out how do I not use my quads and just my inner thigh muscles for the developpes.”

A: “…Always remember, your developpes and grand battements both initiate from the backs on the legs (glutes). So during all your ballet classes, try to feel each movement initiating from the glutes as this will help to stop using your quads…”

Ok so yes it’s true that many dancers have trouble activating their adductors, but your goal shouldn’t be to stop using your quads. And FYI, your glutes don’t flex the hip (anatomy speak for ‘lift the leg’), so it’s impossible to use your butt for this movement. Your butt actually stretches as you lift your leg up in front of you (more on that a bit further down this post).

And just check out some more comments under the main Q&A (in particular about the quads “bunching up”. How exactly does one make their muscles bunch up? Is that like an advanced spindle cell compression technique I don’t know about??)

Or check this out:

From this  thread on dance.net :

“In ballet when lifting your leg for something like a grande battement, you are not supposed to grip with your quads, you are supposed to push from underneath the leg, more so with the hamstring. This can be quite difficult because our first instinct is to grab with the quad.”

Our first instinct is to “grab with the quad” because one of your quads, the big rectus femoris, was designed to help lift your leg. Again, let it do it’s dang job! The hamstring  stretches when you lift your leg up, it does not do the work.

Nichelle from Dance Advantage does a really great job explaining the whole mis-interpreted “lift from underneath” cue HERE. She explains that this cue could just be a poor choice of language as the root of our quad confusion:

‘Note that the language in the phrase I’ve repeated above, “coming from underneath,” could easily be interpreted by students as implying that the muscles underneath the leg (the hamstrings) are responsible or must be used to lift the leg. It seems to me that this may be how the myth of lifting with the hamstrings gets passed along.’

Semantics are a bitch.

This post is to de-demonize the quads.

In fact, in the majority of dancers I work with, their quads are pretty dang weak. Sorry. It’s true.

All your quad aversion might be making you weaker.

For example, I love split squats as a supplemental strengthening exercise for dancers (more info on split squats later in this post). Many dancers I initially work with can only do 5 repetitions with their body weight before having to stop from intense quad burning. Does that sound like a dancer who needs to learn how to use their quads better?

Hell yes.

And just a note, even though we’re focusing on the quads for this particular post, remember that it’s not productive to isolate one muscle group under a laser, but rather I encourage you to look at how it’s functioning in context of whole body movement.

That said, welcome to quad city.

WHAT DO THE QUADS DO?

Lets talk about quad function.

There are 4 quads—–>

All of them straighten your knee.

Only one of them straightens your knee all the way (vastus medialis).

Only one of them also flexes the hip (rectus femoris).

Main quadriceps group functions: Knee extension + hip flexion. Aka anything that lifts your leg up above 90 degrees with your knee straight. That’s, like, a lot of stuff you do in dance…

The rectus femoris in particular is the quad muscle that lifts your leg up in hip flexion. Because it crosses two joints- the hip AND the knee- it is more common for this muscle to be inhibited, or weak, because it is bigger and has more responsibilities.

Here are some other important muscles that help to flex the hip in a developpe:

  • Adductors pectineus and magnus
  • Psoas major
  • Iliacus
  • Sartorius
  • Tensor fasciae latae (TFL)

Rectus femoris is the only hip flexor also responsible for keeping the knee straight. Because of it’s dual function, if it gets weak, any of the other hip flexors on that list could get over-used and tight.

Got tight hips? Maybe your quads are weak…

Or maybe one of the four quads is weaker than the other 3, and this imbalance itself makes your quads feel sore and “grippy”.

So to stretch or to strengthen- It’s not always a simple answer.

DISCLAIMER: I’m not an expert at teaching dance technique and I’m not a ballet teacher. What I do quite well, however is provide dancers with supplementary exercises to help them experience their bodies in new ways that will automatically help them perform their dance techniques better.

So I’ll share some of my more quad-related nuggets with you today.

It’s not so simple as “foam roll and stretch your quads”, or “strengthen your quads with lunges”. Re-training your quads for optimal function is movement pattern dependent, meaning your quads might quite strong doing one thing, but soft as sh!t at another movement pattern.

I hope today to show you a few examples of different ways that I’ve worked with dancers on their quad needs.

SHOULD YOU STRETCH YOUR TIGHT, OVERWORKING QUADS?

Most of the time, no.

Try first asking “why are they tight?”  because “they need to be stretched” is rarely the answer.

Like I mentioned earlier, it’s important to not just to stretch or strengthen the quads  looking at them under a laser beam, in isolation. You have to look at whole body movement, and how and when the quads are working (or not) within that pattern.

Maybe your quads feel tight because they’re under-working and you need to stop stretching them… A viable possibility. A very similar thing happens with excessive hamstring stretching.

IMPROVE ALIGNMENT FOR OPTIMAL QUAD FUNCTION

Here’s what I see most often: A dancer who doesn’t have awareness of the position of their pelvis or spine or knees or feet during a given movement affecting how the quads (and other muscles, of course) are recruited.

Like the example of the split squat earlier, when a dancer learns where their pelvis should be in space during this exercise, it changes how it feels big time, and they go from being able to do 20 down to 5.

Another common example: Stiff feet and ankles can affect how the quads activate. Will just stretching the quads change how the foot functions? Probably not on its own, because the way your feet interact with the floor influence how things above them work.

And often hamstrings that hold too much protective tension (from overstretching, perhaps?) can prevent the quads from functioning properly. Trust me, all the hamstring stretching I did didn’t help me one bit to straighten my legs fully.

Stretching a muscle without working to improve the position of your bones- feet, pelvis, whatever- they are reacting to won’t change anything. It’ll just make that muscle feel kind of tight.

There are so many possibilities, and we all have our own unique story. I’ll share my own experience, and maybe you can relate.

MY QUAD CONUNDRUM

An n=1 example.

I’m a clear case of quads not functioning optimally because I never seem to be able to straighten my knees all the way while lifting my leg up. I got the “straighten your knees” correction a lot. Made me think, “dang, my quads are all grippy I should stretch them more”.

POP QUIZ: Which muscles straighten the knee and lift your leg? (you should know this by now…)

However, if I lie on my stomach and try to pull my heels to my butt to stretch my quads, I can’t get them all the way there. And I don’t feel a quad stretch despite the clear stiffness.

So which is it? Are my quads weak because I can’t straighten my knee? Or are they tight and need stretching because I can’t get my heels to my butt?

Should I stretch or should I strengthen?

The answer is kind of both, but mostly WORK ON ALIGNMENT. Which of course you couldn’t know without looking at me in person (this is why I can’t give you specific advice over the internet, guys!).

Remember your quads don’t work in isolation. They do what they do because of what’s happening above and below- The ankles, knees, pelvis, and spine.

In my case, mobilizing my hips and feet, and repositioning my pelvis helped me to feel better quad recruitment, and as a result of muscles doing their jobs properly and not needing to hold as much tension, I can get my heels closer to my butt, too.

I’ve seen this with several of my clients as well. Sometimes activating the quads will help them to release tension elsewhere that is preventing them from lengthening. Yes, activating the quads can release tension from the hips.

So yeah… It’s not as simple as stretch this, strengthen that.

Like many of my blog posts, you’ll probably have more questions than answers at this point. But that’s ok! I really do want you to think and ask questions. Don’t believe everything you think you know.

HOW TO OPTIMIZE QUAD FUNCTION FOR BETTER STRENGTH & EXTENSIBILITY

Strength meaning, you can activate them at the right time, generate enough force to lift your leg as high as you want, and protect your knees from exploding?

Extensibility meaning that because they activate at the right time, harmoniously with other muscles with similar and opposite functions, they can lengthen further because they don’t hold the excess tension that a poorly coordinated movement pattern tends to accumulate.

If  movements like plies, squats, lunges, hip bridges and even back-bends cause discomfort in your hips, lower back, or knees, could be sign your quads need some lovin’.

I’m going to suggest that the supplemental work you do to help re-train your quads should include movements and positions you don’t into very often in dance.

This means doing exercises that require:

  1. Breathing- Hard because I reckon you hold your breath for stability.
  2. Hip extension– Hard because our hip flexors get pretty tight and short in dance.
  3. Hip adduction– Hard because we’re always stretching our adductors
  4. Hip internal rotation– Hard because we’re always turning out.

Your quads might be pretty good at the dance moves, but get out of dance mode and the quad truth is revealed.

Not sure what any of those terms meant? I’m too lazy to explain in this post (it’s already too long), so prof Google can help you out if you want more info.

So what’s the solution for quad mastery?

MY FAVOURITE QUAD EXERCISES

For strength, releasing tension, and general awareness.

These will also help you to find center with your pelvis, making life better in general.

Split stance breathing

Inspired by Anatomy in Motion.

In this exercise you must stand with both legs parallel (internal rotation), and as narrow as you can manage (adducted). The back leg (extended hip) is the “working” leg, that you’ll be focusing on straightening while it is in extension behind you.

All you have to do is breathe. Put one hand on your back, one on your stomach, or even put your hands on the sides of your ribs. As you inhale, expand into your hands. As you exhale, get all the air out. Aim for a 3 times as long exhale to inhale. Exhale so much that you give yourself no choice but to inhale. Try to keep your butt relaxed.

As you do this, you may notice that the position of your pelvis changes subtly. As you keep your awareness on your back leg straightening, you may notice your hip, calf, or ankle stretching, and your quad starting to burn. Good. Keep going. Keep breathing. Go until that quad burn becomes too intense. I don’t know how long this will take you.

Go for a little walk around. How does it feel to have awoken your quad and reposition your pelvis with your breath and focused awareness? Probably kind of lopsided, but loose in the hip and awesome. Do the other side now.

From here, some exercises to strengthen your quads and improve alignment include:

Deadbug

Half kneeling

Split squats

 

Try these out, and see how your new positionally stronger quads feel in dance.

One client asked me once, how do these exercises transfer into dance?

Think of it this way-  You were a human first, and a dancer second. Make the human stronger, and the dancer will be too.

Also, take a look at the performance pyramid below.

Many dancers specialize so early and start dancing as young as 2, and so never got the functional movement, or general physical preparation part. Our performance pyramids are all upside-down!

By re-balancing our bodies to be good a general movement first, and then layering back on the performance, and THEN specific skill (arabesques and stuff), you’ll definitely notice a difference.

You’ll also be a lot more durable and won’t have to worry about your knees while you dance.

But you don’t have to agree with me or believe me. Just give the advice and exercises a try for yourself. Try strengthening your quads rather than stretching them. I think you’ll notice a huge difference in your alignment, your movement, mobility and strength, and how your body feels on a daily basis.

Let me know what you think in the comments below. How did these exercises work for you? And if you’re a life-long quad-stretcher, let me know how it feels, perhaps, to stop stretching them, and work on strength instead.

Very curious.

And if you want more exercises and ideas like the ones in this post, then you’re going to LOVE Dance Stronger. Dance Stronger is a book and 4 week training program designed to get you stronger for dance (duh).

strenth training program for dancersThe exercises in this post are actually directly from the program (these are the reject videos, because of the bad sound quality, sorry!), but to get a full understanding of how to integrate them into your dance cross-training, you’ll have to join the full program, which is available 100% by donation!

I think you’ll really love it.

And if you loved this post (or if you hated it) please let me know in the comments below, and share with a friend. Let’s stop the quad fear, together.

PS *Misty Copeland’s legs. Obviously

A Core Workout Program for Dancers That Works

A Core Workout Program for Dancers That Works

Tell me if these corrections sound familiar: best core workout program

“Hold your core tight!”

“Suck in your belly

“Activate your lower abs!”

If these aren’t familiar, then I don’t believe you’ve ever been to a dance class! Or maybe you’re just THAT good…

If you hear those cues a LOT from your dance teachers, or even if you’re a dance teacher and you’re guilty of using those corrections, well this should be an exciting read for you.

In fact, “I need to strengthen and activate my core” is the number one goal most of my clients initially have, and is also the number one thing they tend to hear from their teachers that they need to improve.

So today is all about core strength- Why-to, how-to, and how-NOT-to, too.

And especially if you’re a beginner, this might be the most useful thing you’ve ever read pertaining to the “best core exercises” for dancers.

I’m not claiming that this is the most amazing core workout program you could ever do, but I can tell you for sure that it’s not bullshit.

I won’t suggest cute little exercises that target your cute little stabilizing muscles, nor will I overwhelm you with anatomical jargon.

What I will do is tell you the truth about core training (as I know it).

And most importantly, I hope I’ll make you think, and give you some actionable stuff to take away and try RIGHT AWAY.

Ready?

To be completely honest, I’ve come to hate the word “core”. I try to avoid using it because it feels so ambiguous. I feel like half the time I use the term “core” I don’t even know what I’m talking about. And I’ll admit that because, like I said above, I’m not going to bullshit you.

I really am a good coach, I promise…

So what is the core?

If you’re like me, you want the answers to these questions:

Does “core” mean your abs?

Is it more than that?

And what does it mean when you hear “engage your core!”?

Should you be consciously thinking about activating your core while you dance?

What are the best exercises to get your core to engage while you dance?

When’s the best time to do core exercises?

How many crunches do I need to do??

Think about those questions for a moment. Write down your thoughts, and then come back to them at then end of this post. I’m going to tell you what I think (obviously, cause it’s my blog and I can say what I want), but you don’t have to agree with me.

And regardless of what the “right” answers are, it’s important just to consider these questions. Don’t blindly do what everyone else is doing, THINK for yourself about what right for YOU.

Question everything. Even me. Especially me…

But for now, try to forget everything you thought you knew about core training for dance.

By the end of this post I hope you’ll have better understanding of what the core is, how to train it, and notice right away how using the advice in this article will help improve your dancing.

STOP WITH THE CRUNCHES IN CLASS

I have to get this off my chest… I wish dance teachers would stop putting so many crunches and other cute core exercises into their dance warm-ups without knowing why they’re doing them.

I know, the ab-burn feels productive, but is it actually?

But I also realize that if your dance teacher is asking you to do crunches in class and you just lie there doing nothing, rolling your eyes, it is extremely rude, so don’t do that. Hence my frustration!

If you’re a teacher and you ask your dance students to do crunches in dance classes, I hope you’ll reconsider because you may be wasting valuable time you could be teaching your students to be better dancers.

And not to mention crunches bore me out of my mind. Just sayin’. I came to your class because I value your experience and want to absorb your dance knowledge. I want you to teach me to dance, not do crunches with me.

If I really wanted to do crunches, I’d do them at home. But I won’t. Because I know a better way  (keep reading!). And crunches suck.

Can that be a hashtag? Ohhh yeahhh it can #CrunchesSuck

What IS the core?

When you think core, you probably think of abs. But abs ain’t the whole core story.

I realize that there are many different philosophies and systems for naming and exercising the muscles that constitute the core. Just run a Google search. There’s wayyyy too much info on core training.

I really don’t want to add to the core confusion.

I don’t claim that my way is 100% correct, its simply the way I’ve been taught, and is the best way I know to describe it to help my clients get results at this point in my career. It might change in few months, I don’t know yet, in which case I’ll have to revise this.

In fact, after I take Anatomy in Motion in November (super stoked!) I’ll probably have to delete this whole post out of embarrassment.

What are the muscles of the core?

Be aware that there are two sub-groups of core musculature with different roles and a different priority of needs: The intrinsic and extrinsic core subsystems.

Intrinsic and Extrinsic Core

Intrinsic core refers to the inner core: Muscles that don’t create large movements but help  to hold the deepest parts of you together, including your organs. These muscles include (but not limited to):

  • Thoracic diaphragm
  • Pelvic floor
  • Jaw
  • Transverse abdominis (TVA)
  • Multifidi

The extrinsic core consists of more superficial muscles that, while still important for alignment and stability, are more responsible for creating movement. These big moving muscles include:

  • Hamstrings
  • Adductors
  • Internal and external obliques
  • Rectus abdominis
  • Psoas
  • Paraspinals

In the hierarchy of core, intrinsic core takes priority. That means if you have jaw, diaphragm, or pelvic floor issues, core exercises like crunches ain’t gonna help with that.

Because #CrunchesSuck

But Monika, (you may be thinking) that’s just crazy talk- The jaw is not a core muscle, and if it is, are you saying I should be strengthening my jaw?

WTF is an “ultimate jaw workout”?? Do you need to rip live flesh apart with your teeth? You’re not an alligator…

Hell no!

You don’t need to necessarily strengthen the crap out of your intrinsic core by doing weighted kegels and chewing rubber, you just need to be aware that excess jaw, diaphragm or pelvic floor tightness isn’t productive because it interferes with your core activation during movement. 

Meaning, you need to learn to get strong without holding your breath. This is why so many movement training systems emphasize breathe- It’s actually part of training your core!

And you need to train yourself to perform challenging exercises without clenching your jaw.

Oh, and for the love of God, go pee and poop when you need to! That’s coming from a very talented pee-holder (I was sooo good at it, when I was a kid I could go all day just peeing once- Explains a lot about my hypertonic pelvic floor today).

I’ve worked with one dancer who’s jaw clenching habit was interfering with a whole body rotational pattern, and another who’s lateral jaw deviation was inhibiting her QL on the opposite side, causing her SI joint to become painful- Patterns I assessed using NKT®

How to tell if your intrinsic core needs some TLC:

If any of the below describe you for some time I would recommend seeing a therapist who can assess intrinsic core function and help you sort it out:

  • You clench your jaw (consciously or no) and/or grind your teeth at night
  • Your jaw deviates to one side, or clicks frequently or painfully
  • You’ve ever fallen on your tailbone hard
  • You’ve given birth
  • You often hold in your urine/delay bowel movements
  • You have issues with incontinence
  • Sex is painful
  • You hold your breath frequently, have a high degree of rib flare
  • You’re asthmatic or experience shortness of breath

What does it mean when you hear “engage your core”?

Because it’s not like I ever hear that from dance teachers… Not me. Never.

But how do you do that??

Here’s the current core training dogma: Repetitively contracting the abdominal muscles from a neutral position will improve muscle endurance, strength, and tone. Feel that burn, baby!

You could can do that, and I’m sure the tone of your abs will increase, and you’ll get better at repetitively contracting your abs from neutral.

But does increased abdominal tone and ability to contract actually help your core muscles respond in a more supportive way while you’re in movement? Are crunches an exercise with specific carryover to dance?

When in dance do you ever need to do 100 concentric ab contractions from a neutral position? Maybe one day you’ll dance a piece of choreography like that. Let me know if you do, because I want to see that piece.

Does it looks like doing an ab contraction from neutral will help Misty here?

Misty Copeland is badass

Nope.

To do that awesome leap, Misty needs to LENGTHEN her abs, and LEAVE NEUTRAL.

*gasp*

Neutral isn’t everything. Muscle tone isnt’ everything. Just let it go. You’ll be ok.

Is abdominal “toning” a useful goal?

The term “tone” means very little in the context of helping you dance better.

Six pack abs don’t impress me much and in fact, excess abdominal tone can interfere with your ability to lengthen and reflexively use the abdominal muscles.

 Your core muscles need to be able to lengthen before they can contract.

Repetitive concentric contractions aren’t so helpful. It’s just not how we use our core in dance. And since now you know the hamstrings and adductors are core muscles (extrinsic core) there’s clearly more to the core game than just “doing abs” on the floor.

Increasing abdominal tone is not going to improve core function.

Tone refers to the resting “hardness” of a muscle. A muscle with high tone feels more solid to the touch at rest because it’s chronically being clenched.

A muscle can be super flexible and still have a lot of resting tone. An common example of this in dancers is the hamstrings (which always seem to feel tight, don’t they? I wonder why…).

And while rock-hard abs may be the goal for some, lots of ab tone makes activating them quite difficult because rock-hard abs don’t lengthen so easily. Kind of like a frozen elastic band… Can you see how this would affect how their function?

If all your hard work crunching has limited the range of motion of your spine to bend forward and back, is that really helping your dancing?

Strength shouldn’t ever interfere with your ability to achieve a range of motion.

Core training is all about mobility

Your abdomen and your hips were designed to be mobile Why not let them be?

Imagine the muscles of your core work similarly to a slingshot. To launch a stone you need to first pull back the elastic- Lengthen it. The farther you pull it back, the farther the stone will go. Higher slingshot mobility gets a better force output.

Your muscles operate similarly. They must first lengthen in order to contract at their full potential.

Which leads us to the next important misconception about core training…

Should you be consciously thinking about activating your core while you dance?

Personally, I think no.

There are so many other things you need to think about while you’re dancing: Don’t fall on your face, point your toes, don’t forget the choreography, oh shit- watch out for the slippery spot downstage, POINT YOUR TOES HARDER!

Is there room in there to think about consciously engaging your core? Hell no. And you shouldn’t need to.

Core training isn’t about training muscles to contract, it’s about teaching a system to respond reflexively to movement- as much movement as possible- and help you return to center without you needing to think about it.

Sounds nice doesn’t it?

A huge missing piece in a lot of the core work dancers do is not training the eccentric  portion– Training the muscles of the core to feel length and return to center, rather than force a concentric contraction from neutral.

This is good news, because not only is training this way more effective for dance, but it’s wayyyy less boring than crunches, and helps you to improve your range of motion and strength simultaneously, not just increase the tone of your muscles and potentially limit movement.

Think reflexive core, not “tight” core.

Effective core training mobilizes your center of mass away from center allowing you to feel a definite stretch- eccentric load- on core muscles, and from there they have no choice but to contract, or load, in response to stretch, bringing you back to center.

You need to find the limits of your range of motion, and allow the elasticity of your muscles bring you back to center automatically. There’s no room in your brain to think about it while you dance.

And don’t worry, for those of you who still want to “feel the burn”- Eccentric work tends to cause more muscle soreness than concentric training does. So you’ll still feel sore the next day, if that’s what validates your core training (though it shouldn’t necessarily).

Mobilizing your core to “Dance Bigger”

Have you ever been told to dance “bigger”? Or do you ever tell this to your dance students?

Dancers who seem to “dance small” are also often told they have a “weak core”, or just feel like they lack strength in general- They can’t eccentrically load into a very large range of motion, regardless of their passive flexibility, and so are stuck confined to a very small base of support, with tense shoulders, hips and spines in an attempt to keep them “stable”.

In this case, more core stability training won’t do much more than further decrease their usable kinesphere.

And when these “small” dancers do take a risk and leave their already small/medium range of available motion, they might fall, hop, or wobble around, and so they learn that safety remains in continuing to dance small. These dancers often tend to get injured more easily.

Does this sound like you? Sounds like me! I’ve since changed my core training paradigm to allow movement and I hope you will too.

Think responsive, mobile core. Not hard, stiff, stable core.

If you hate planks, that’s fine. Winning a 5 minute plank competition doesn’t mean you actually know how to use your core while you dance. It means you’re really good at being stiff and stable.

But dance is about movement! Why the hell would you want to be good at staying still?

How to start more effective core training TODAY

1. Understand how to eccentrically load  (lengthen) core musculature.

You need to know how to eccentrically load your core anatomy if you want it to contract for you without needing to think about it. For this it helps to learn your anatomy and know muscle actions (which I won’t teach here, sorry!).

Can you feel your obliques, hamstrings, and adductors stretch when you move? Do the opposite of a “crunch”. Feel the stretch, not the burn.

Note, however, that when I say “feel the stretch” I don’t mean doing a static stretch for long durations, I mean actively getting to your maximum range of motion, feeling it, and getting out of it.

2. Check which core muscles you can feel eccentrically load.

Can you feel each of these muscles stretch actively?

If you can’t feel a stretch with movement, you probably can’t activate it very well either. You need to be able to feel muscles lengthening as you’re training them. If you can’t feel it, maybe you need a different exercise, or maybe you need some hands-on help.

Feeling the eccentric loading means you can slow the movement down, meaning when you land from a jump your hamstrings won’t buckle underneath you.

And please don’t worry if you can’t yet feel some muscles stretching. It gives you something to work towards, and figure out. Goals are good!

Remember, the top of the mountain is only important in context of its sides. Enjoy figuring out your body and experimenting with movement!

3. Figure out WHY you can’t feel certain core muscles load eccentrically.

Following from the last point, play detective or enlist someone to help you if you can’t feel the eccentric load on some muscles.

Do you hold your breath? Clench your jaw? Have a legitimate joint misalignment needing clinical attention? Need to let go of some suppressed teenage angst? (I do…) Or maybe it will just take time to become more aware of your body.

Get help and figure out why you’re struggling. Maybe a change in mindset and focused awareness is all it takes. Often just taking the time to breathe deeply will help you to feel a stretch where you otherwise wouldn’t.

4. Eccentrically load daily.

I don’t mean static stretches. Controlling as large of a range of motion you possibly can while still feeling things stretching.

And by the way. This. Feels. Awesome.

Feeling eccentric load is to me what makes moving feel so good. You may not ever experience a “runners’ high”, but I believe that everyone can get a “movement high”, as you train your body to lengthen and contract in new ways that allow you to think less and feel more.

So to sum up: Core training means you must be able to feel your core musculature stretching with control, by creating MOVEMENT.

Sometimes my clients ask me, “Should I be engaging my core during this exercise?”. My answer is usually, “Don’t worry about it”.

Naturally, this isn’t a satisfying answer so I have to explain to them the idea of developing a reflexive core: The intention of movement should be enough to create a response from the core without forcing a contraction.

Train the reflex, not the muscles, and you’ll automatically feel the muscles activate. Give the muscles no choice but to contract by lengthening away from center.

What are the best exercises to help engage your core while you dance?

Here’s how I recommend you start exploring this “core training” thing:

Sign up for the next free 30 day Restore Your Core Challenge. You’ll learn to master one concept and exercise each week through exploration of the “core concepts”, exercise video tutorials, and  community support. Join our tribe of stronger dancers and learn how taking a few minutes each day to unlock the power of your “core” can transform the way you move and feel. Totally free. Find out what could change if you dedicated a few minutes each day to unravelling your core. We do these challenges LIVE, together, every July, October, January, and April.

Or, if you’re ready to jump right in, check out Dance Stronger. A multi-media strength training reference for dancers including a 150 page ebook and 4 week training program, as well as a kick-ass community of strong dancers.

strength training program for dancers

I hope this post was helpful. I’d love to hear about your own core training thoughts. What’s worked for you? And what hasn’t? Made some break-throughs or helped some dancers with their core confusion? Let me know in the comments.

 

 

 

How to Make a Dance Conditioning Class That Doesn’t Suck

How to Make a Dance Conditioning Class That Doesn’t Suck

I’m not here to hate on dance conditioning classes. Much.

In fact I’m not totally qualified to hate on dance conditioning classes because I don’t have very much first hand experience participating in them. Because sadly many dance studios I went to didn’t have that option.

Even Ryerson didn’t have one, though I know many university dance programs do.

Indeed many a dance studio, and many a dance program offer a conditioning class of some sort. This is a good thing.

What I find concerning is that most dance conditioning classes are about as safe and effective as Gumby’s attempt to max out on the bench.

Don’t get me wrong, I am stoked that so many dance schools recognize the need for supplementary conditioning. I’m happy we all agree that the physical stimulus in a typical dance class isn’t enough to elicit improvements in fitness and strength beyond a certain point. I am sad, however, to observe how these classes can often exacerbate some of the issues dancers are already dealing with, rather than make them stronger and less prone to said issues.

Like, your spine hates you from back-bends and then your conditioning class makes you do planks. But they look like this:
And you hold THAT for 3 minutes. And then your back  hurts more. But it can’t be because of the planks because those are good for you. Your teacher compliments your sweet pants, but shouldn’t she (or he) be correcting your position?

How dance conditioning classes drop the ball

  • Inappropriate exercise selection.
  • Inappropriate timing in the schedule.
  • Too much volume/intensity.
  • Under-qualified, inexperienced teachers.
  • No emphasis on educating dancers on how exercises should feel, or that pain isn’t good.

Let me illustrate with a few examples from the real world (although here’s one from this fake internet world, too. This website hurts my soul little).

The inappropriately designed conditioning class by an under-qualified instructor.

I recently met with a client to speak about a project she was working on for her thesis project, and we got on the topic of a very prestigious summer training program that she had participated in last year.

This program happened to include a conditioning class (yay) but according to her-  and I consider her to be educated on what is and is NOT an acceptable form of dance cross-training- they did tons of variation of crunches, and exercises that made her hip flexors strain (boo).  It got so bad that she decided to express this to the instructor, who responded by saying, “then what should we do instead?”.

!!!!!!!!!!!!

Unacceptable.

First, someone who has been hired to instruct dancers on how to get stronger, presumably with the goal of dancing better, should understand that crunches are not the best choice of exercise for dancers.

And second, if a dancer tells you she is feeling something wrong during an exercise and asks for an alternative, you should be able to give her one. Because you have 5 up your sleeve for this very reason.

To me, this screams unprofessional and under-qualified, and considering the injury rate in dancers is about 80% (but lets be honest, more like 100%), dance schools should do their research before hiring a teacher who is more “boot-camp” than dance cross-training. Someone who will build them up, not break them down.

This class was also poorly scheduled, sandwiched between morning classes and afternoon rehearsals.

When is the best time? I’m not totally sure. I’d like to ask Matthew Wyon that question.

The dance school that offers Zumba as their fitness class.

Ok so I do recognize that for people who don’t do much of anything, much less dance, Zumba can be an intense workout that is probably a totally acceptable thing for them to be doing.

My issue is when dance studios decide to forgo offering a legit conditioning class for dancers because they already have Zumba as an option. They’ve confused “dance fitness” with “fitness for dancers”. It’s not the same thing.

I wouldn’t be caught dead teaching a Zumba class to dancers. No offense, Zumba. I know you’ve changed people’s lives and that’s cool. I just wouldn’t do you. We can still be friends, though.

Many times that I’ve reached out to dance schools in Toronto to talk about the need for dance conditioning classes I’ve been disregarded because they already have their own version of dance fitness, which often is some kind of boot-camp, aerobics, Prancersise-type program that makes me want to cry a little.

And Zumba isn’t dance training either. Want to learn some sweet moves you can use in the real world (whatever that is)? Take an actual dance class. Or do this.

The conditioning class that does the right exercises the wrong way

I had the pleasure of training a lovely young lady who’s dance studio had a conditioning class. They did exercises that I consider good, like push-ups. However, when she told me one day that she did 100 push-ups in said class I was suspicious. In sessions with me, she has difficulty doing a controlled negative.

“Are you sure you were doing push-ups?” I asked. “Well, not like the way we do in our sessions. We have to do he them to the beat of the music ”.

Ahhhghhghhhh.

Understandably, when forced to go to the beat of the music her form gets a bit sloppy.

I know you like being on the beat (I do, too) but that does not mean you should have to do push-ups to the beat of a song that is way too fast. Especially if you can’t do one proper push-up. This is another another case where the instructor should know better, allow them to do push-ups at their own pace, and provide appropriate regressions when necessary. Which in the beginning is almost always.

Teaching a group of dancers how to move well, get strong, and get them excited about injury prevention isn’t easy. Often you’ll be met with a group of egos with a no pain no gain mindset. It’s much easier to pander to their wants than to educate them.

They may ask for a stretch class. Teach them neutral spine and how to breathe instead. Make them earn the right to stretch.

I think what’s lacking from many conditioning classes is a measurable goal. How else can you tell your students are making progress? Unless the goal is to move around a bunch, sweat, and feel the burn.

The actual goals of a dance conditioning class

  • Educate dancers on proper movement quality and it’s importance.
  • Get the dancers stronger to improve their work and recovery capacity.
  • Help the dancers build body awareness.
  • Balance patterns of overuse to prevent injuries.
  • Serve as a mock “screen” to get a sense of whether a dancer is over-trained, injured, or recovering poorly.

Now I’m not saying that I am the most brilliant instructor ever when it comes to dance conditioning and strength training. I’m just saying that I have certain teaching standards, systems and philosophies that I feel actually make for effective strength development and reduce the risk of injury rather than increase it.

Some strategies to ensure your dance conditioning classes don’t suck

Music is for improving energy, not a beat to work out to. Not every dancer can do exercises at the same tempo. It is cruel and inappropriate to assume all dancers can do push-ups to the beat of Latch. Featuring Sam Smith. Possibly the best song ever.

Be constantly assessing the dancers. Treat every exercise as an assessment. Watch for signs of poor recovery. Ask if they find an exercise painful, where they feel it, how challenging it feels. Don’t just stand there and count the reps out.

Do an appropriate warm up. This should include some work on breathing, core activation, and mobility work/dynamic stretching if needed.

Provide a few alternatives (progressions, regressions, lateralizations) for each exercise. No two dancers are the same and they should not be treated as such.

Include these 3 components: Corrective exercise for movement quality, strength development, and metabolic work. Your ratio of exercises from each category may vary depending on the class. Some classes seem to miss the first 2 and do only the metabolic conditioning (circuits, inervals, etc).

Explain why you’re getting them to do the selected exercises and how it will help their dancing. Dancers are much more likely to want to do exercises if they see how it will translate to their performance or help them overcome and prevent injuries. “This will help your turns”, is a better motivator than “feel the burn”.

Spend minimal time stretching. I don’t want to go into this rant right now, but stretching is not the most effective use of time if you only have one hour per week to help your dancers. Dancers need help controlling the flexibility they already have, not getting more bendy and unstable.

Don’t kill the dancers with high volume and intensity. Especially if it’s the end of the day, or the middle of the day. Or the start of their day… Just help them work at an intensity that is reasonable but still challenging.

I struggled for a while teaching classes not knowing how to structure them properly, how to ensure dancers were performing exercises appropriately, and get them in the right mindset. Maybe you don’t agree with everything I’m saying, and if you don’t, I really hope you have a better way, and that you’ll tell me about it so I can do better, too.

I’ll leave you with these final points. Remember:

Zumba is not conditioning for dancers.

Exercises shouldn’t absolutely be done to the beat of the music.

And please don’t treat your dancers like they’re in a boot-camp. They deserve better. They deserve to be built up, not shattered.