Should You Use Static Stretching to Improve Flexibility?

Should You Use Static Stretching to Improve Flexibility?

Your thigh bone’s connected to your… shoulder bone!

Flexibility: For such an important aspect of being a dancer you can count the number of articles I’ve written about stretching on one hand:

Stop Stretching Your Hamstrings So Much
Stretches You need to stop doing Volume 1
Stretches You Need to Stop Doing Volume 2
5 Productive Stretches for Dancers
Hip Flexor “Stretching” for the Hypermobile

Three of them are related to NOT stretching so much, and, if you read the other two, you’ll also see that they aren’t really pro-stretching either.

One could get the sense that I don’t like stretching. That sense would be correct.

But I also recognize that it is a necessary part of being a dancer, particularly if your style requires flexibility, and that makes me very, very confused. And intrigued!

I am leary of articles on the web that say, “Do this awesome stretch and your life will be complete!”, because:

a) I don’t know if their claims are true based on other peoples’ successful experiences, or if their claims are based on “this stretch stretches this muscle and this muscle is tight so stretching it must be good”

b) My own experience tells me that stretching stuff that feels tight can make things feel worse, and that stretching is NOT the only thing contributing to flexibility gains, and finally…

c) Limitations in flexibility must be considered on an individual basis, not based on one population (dancers, football players, desk-sitter-down-ats), because of the inherent variations between each person in that group.

That’s why I don’t post a lot of articles about the “best” stretches and exercises for improving X, Y or Z, for a particular ailment, performance enhancement, or population.

It’s also why creating Dance Stronger was really, really difficult. In fact,  I hope I made it very clear that  Dance Stronger is meant to be a self exploration through movement and strength training, a suggestion to experiment and question what you’ve been told about dance training, and a philosophy for success in dance, NOT a “do this stuff because I said so without using your brain” kind of training program.

I haven’t deliberately “stretched” for 4 few years, and I’m still “flexible”… WTF?

A few days ago I tried out my splits, just for fun, and guess what… I’ve still got it! On one leg anyway.

Aside from yoga (which I don’t consider “stretching”), and some silliness I was subjected to in several dance “warm-ups”, which would have been rude not to do (such is dance etiquette…), I have not deliberately set aside time to work on improving my flexibility with static stretching since 2012.

This may be N=1, but I think a lot of my smart colleagues will agree: Quantity of stretching is not the only factor related to improving flexibility. 

If that statement makes your brain hurt, I am NOT saying that stretching won’t help you become more flexible, but that it is not the only part of developing and maintaining flexibility. If it were, 4 years of not stretching should have meant I lost some flexibility. Just one exception negates the “rule” (but I know I’m not the only one).

This is important information for dancers: We know that the excessive stretching used to achieve the degree of mobility and ligament laxity synonymous with success as a dancer can cause trouble for their bodies, but if we can reduce the amount of stress on their systems by reducing the amount of stretching they do while still maintaining requisite flexibility, we could help dancers perform better with less pain and greater longevity.

But could our egos handle that? (if it challenges your ego, you’re probably moving closer to the truth..)

This blog post is an expression of my quest for the “truth” about stretching. I may not have the answers for you today, but if you check in with me in 10 years, maybe I’ll have something more enlightening to share.

Before we continue, let me state my biases, my opinions, and that which I am ignorant of:

  •  I don’t know much about helping people become more flexible with static stretching.
  • Most of what I know about stretching is what NOT to do (which goes a long way…)
  • I am biased towards not stretching because I was injured while overstretching, but this doesn’t mean it won’t help certain people who could benefit from more tissue length; I am aware of this bias and do my best not to let my own stories impact the exercises I choose for my clients.
  • I believe that dancers can develop amazing flexibility and learn to manage it safely and effectively, but this takes movement honesty, the ability to tune-in to one’s body, and self-respect: things you aren’t generally taught about stretching in dance class.

That last point is, to me, is the most important part. Follow any stretching program consistently and progressively from a place of honesty, awareness, and respect for you body’s limits, and you’ll probably get flexible safely. Is there a “best” stretching program? Doubt it. But there is a “best” intention and mindset for stretching.

“You can’t do what you won’t until you know what you’re doing.”  Moshe Feldenkrais

That said, I have witnessed some wicked cool instant mobility improvements that were completely unrelated to stretching:

The dancer who’s “hamstring flexibility” was related to a breathing issue. Her active straight leg raise improved bilaterally after 5 minutes spent helping her feel a few full exhalations, getting her ribs into ZOA. It was cool. Her instinct might have been to stretch her hamstrings, but that may have actually made her more tight. Whether this was a core stabilization, air pressure, joint position, or nervous system adaptation, I have no clue. But it worked, and we didn’t stretch, so I’m into that.

The girl who’s toe touch was related to a knee internal rotation deficit. A friend of mine who, for 15 years was not able to touch her toes, bent down to touch the floor effortlessly after being taught a movement to improve her knee extension and internal rotation (Anatomy in Motion amazingness, and a can of worms I will not open right now…). It wasn’t her hamstrings that needed stretching, she had been stretching those for 15 years with no improvements! I still don’t quite know how to explain her drastic increase in range of motion, but it had something to do with the inability to internally rotate and extend her knees fully causing her to feel extra tension and her brain perceiving this to be an unsafe range to move into.

 

The dancer who improved her back-bend with developmental kinesiology. You guessed it, we didn’t stretch, but we drilled a DNS– inspired exercise integrating a reciprocal hip flexion/extension pattern with core and shoulder stability (variation of oblique sitting). In fact, when she got up to try her backbend, her increase in range caught her by surprise and she almost fell over.

DNS

Something kinda sorta like this…

So while I’m not afraid to say that I don’t know much about stretching, I know we can do less of it. I know stretching has it’s place but I don’t know how much and when are most optimal .And in what ratios? At what time? For how long? How little can we do for maximum results? Where’s the sweet spot?

I know you can increase flexibility and mobility without stretching, but I also know that stretching has to be a part of dance training- classical dance training anyway, to achieve the requisite lines and meet a certain standard (if you care about standards and expectations).

Stretching Myth: Static stretching is the gold standard for improving flexibility

Let’s get clear about one thing: Static stretching definitely can improve flexibility. I’m sure it has it’s place… I just don’t know for sure what that looks like, and I encourage the people reading this who have more experience and smartz than I to chime in.

It seems that, on our quest for flexibility, many of us will reach a point of diminishing returns after which stretching ceases to be beneficial and can actually make things suck.

As per the theme of this blog post (and my life in general), I can tell you more about when stretching is not warranted and what I don’t know than what I actually do. So many Nassim Taleb quotes apply:

“The sucker’s trap is when you focus on what you know and what others don’t know, rather than the reverse.”

or,

“It remains the case that you know what is wrong with a lot more confidence than you know what is right.”

And this one in particular makes me feel better on days my brain is not cooperating:

“I want to live happily in a world I don’t understand.”

Stretching: A world I don’t understand…

At what point does stretching lose efficacy?

  • You feel bones start to bump into each other, like when you’re doing the splits but you feel a crunchy block in your lower back.
  • You no longer feel muscles stretching, but ligaments, joint capsule, and other passive structures loading.
  • You actually strain a muscle from overstretching (duh)
  • You have a chronic tendonitis or tendonopathy
  • If you are dehydrated
  • You have to hold your breath and make a squishy face to “survive” a stretch
  • Your pain symptoms or feelings of tightness are exacerbated after stretching

While most of these might seem like “duh, of course”, many of us still try to stretch away our problems! I’m guilty of it, and my guess is that you’re guilty of it, too (or at least you were at some point…).

To be completely honest: I am the girl who stretched bone into bone and thought the feeling of impingement was productive (pain=part of being a dancer was the mindset I was taught). I am the girl who tried to stretch away chronic hamstring tendonitis and then strained her hamstring stretching it in warm-up. And I am the girl who sat in the splits cold for several minutes before class, never quite exhaling fully, with complete disrespect for my ligamentous integrity. Also, I didn’t like water. Screw that stuff!

No movement honesty. No awareness. No respect.

Don’t do what I did.

#SimpsonsChallenge 4: Don’t Do What Donny Don’t Does. Please tell me at least one of you appreciates this!

What Factors Could Affect Flexibility, if not Quantity of Stretching?

Let’s say you’ve taken static stretching to it’s maximum potential and you’ve hit a flexibility plateau. You’ve hit a wall and are beginning to believe you’re no longer working with a tissue extensibility issue. Let’s assume your hydration status is great. And let’s also forget for now that being super bendy isn’t always advantageous if you also value force production (strength and power) and proprioception (body’s position sensing ability).

These are likely to be the two main factors that are limiting your flexibility:

  • Static joint position: A habitual posture you can’t get out of, joints compressing to provide support and proprioception to your body and you don’t want to leave that “happy place”.
  • Nervous system putting on the the brakes. Your brain perceives something might be unsafe to move into and adds extra tension at rest as a protective measure. You can’t just “stretch away” this type of increased muscle tone.

Either stuff gets compressed, stuck short, and you can’t move out of or go further into that position because it feels unsafe,

OR

Stuff is already stretched out, stuck long, and under high tension, so you can’t move out of or go further into that position because it feels unsafe.

Which leads us to a very important myth we need to stop perpetuating: “If it feels tight, stretch it.” 

What if you are stuck in a position due to compression, for example, your lower back is stuck in a mad degree of extension and you can’t bend to touch your toes.

“Stretching harder” will probably place additional load on other areas, maybe the  hamstrings or upper back, because your lower back is stuck and can’t flex forwards. It may be stuck for a very useful reason: Bones are very stable and reassuring for those of us who can’t sense where we are in space. That doesn’t make it a good long-term strategy.

In this same story, if your hamstrings are already stuck long from overstretching them, then any additional stretch on them will be perceived as “danger”, and Mr. Brain may tell them to tighten up to protect themselves from getting even longer.

In this example, the lower back needs to be given an experience that allows it to leave end-range compression in a way that feels safe and useful, and the hamstrings need an experience that gives them no option but to contract so they can get out of end range length.

This “experience” does not often need to be a static stretch. Think outside the box…

It can be a breathing exercise, a “core” exercise, PNF,  or muscle energy. It can be meditation or inner-work to let go of limiting beliefs affecting movement and alignment. It can be any movement that gives the experience of something different, to explore something that was missing, in a safe way. In Anatomy in Motion, sometimes this means momentarily bringing a joint into the very end range it is stuck in to teach it how to get out of it, but it can also mean giving it the experience of the complete opposite motion that it is stuck in. Both can work, but it depends on the person, their history, they way their unique brains and bodies react.

As I bring this post to and end, sorry if you were expecting a stretching routine. I don’t feel that I can ethically do that.

But I DO encourage you to try something different. Try not stretching. Try something else. Try the opposite of what you’re currently doing.

If you want some ideas, structure, and an approach to dance training that doesn’t emphasize stretching, I encourage you to check out Dance Stronger. It’s not a “how to” guide, exactly, but a “think-for yourself, you-may-find-my suggestions-useful, how-to-NOT” guide to enhance your dancing through supplemental strategies outside the classroom.

Read the first two chapters free. Discover the secrets to ruining a dance career, fast! 😉 And MORE!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Stretches You Need to Stop Doing vol. 1

Stretches You Need to Stop Doing vol. 1

In recent years (months, even) I’ve changed my mindset as it relates to flexibility and stretching.

Having spent 10+ years contentedly overstretching the crap out of my ligaments and testing the integrity of my hip labrums and knee meniscii (meniscuses?), I am now just as happy to not do any stretching.

Because sometimes less is more.

And because the other day, when going up the stairs, I realized that what I thought was the floor creaking was actually my knee. I’m in my 20s. These are not the sounds I wish my knees to make at this stage in my life.

I can’t do the splits anymore and that’s just peachy. And even though I can’t do the splits I can somehow actively lift my legs higher than I used to (except that damn arabesque, the bane of my existence).

And I enjoy dance more today with less flexibility than I did back in the day, when I could over-split and fold myself in half.

These days, my active and passive flexibility are almost on par, and so even though I’m not as passively flexible (less splat) I can actually control my movement through it’s full range of motion. It feels pretty good to be in control.

If you take anything away from this blog post, let it be this: Control > splat.

Your new rule of life. And things hurt much less when you follow this rule, by the way.

Control= Your stretching must involve a need to stabilize a proximal (closest to your center) structure.  If you’re familiar with the joint-by-joint approach, you already know that proximal stability allows for distal mobility.

Because as a dancer, you’re probably not lacking any passive range of motion. I’d wager that to get more hip mobility, for example, you’d be better off working on lumbar spine stability. Less splat, more control.

I am not against stretching as a whole. Just the ones that are silly and you might regret 10 years from now. The ones that make your knees and hips degenerate prematurely.

Today’s stretch I wish you would stop doing:

 The “hip flexor stretch” lunge. Because your hips feel tight…

Oh your hips are tight? Maybe it’s because your ligaments hate you.

I know you totally do this stretch because I used to do it too!

It’s possible that because you stretch your hips like above, you’ve overstretched some ligaments, and now, instead of having nice taught ligament support, your muscles need to take on more of a stability role becoming more like pseudo ligaments.

Your hip flexors are meant to flex your hips! Not act as ligaments preventing you from hyperextending. They should be helping you produce force, not bracing against doom.

This bracing is why your hips feel tight. Because they are tight. Reflexively tight, in an attempt to protect the joint. But it’s not an indication to stretch!

Instead of allowing the hip flexors like iliacus, TFL, pectineus, and rec. fem. to have a moment of relaxation, you inadvertently stress them to the point of protective tension because with the ligaments on stretch, increasing muscle tone is the best strategy to prevent your hips and spine from exploding. 


sacroiliac sprain

The goal of a hip flexor stretch is to go from hip flexion into extension, or even hyperxtension, without letting the spine or pelvis compensate (splat), and without putting undue stress on passive structures like ligaments and bones.

The hip flexor stretch above ain’t stretching crap.

Here’s why:

Issue 1: Losing pelvic and spinal neutral.

On closer inspection, you’ll notice her pelvis is rotating both into the saggital plane and transverse plane while also compressing slightly her lumbar spine.

Is she maintaining a level pelvis? Nope. She’s going into an anterior pelvic tilt, right pelvic rotation, and a bit of lumbar extension. Does this stretch, therefore, require her to stabilize anything? No.

Should you do a stretch that doesn’t have a stability component? No.

Remember, control>splat. Proximal stability for distal mobility.

Issue 2: Relying on passive structures in end range

In this stretch, because she is twisting and bending to get into a deeper range of motion, she is bypassing anything productive and putting her iliofemoral and iliolumbar ligaments on stretch instead. Maybe even some bone-on-bone action, too.

By the way, bone impinging upon bone is not pleasant.

Once a ligament becomes over-stretched, it can never go back to the way it was before.Without ligament support the joint loses proprioception, dynamic stability, and becomes at risk for degeneration

If she can’t maintain level pelvis in this range of motion, I doubt she is in control here. If she can’t breathe diaphragmatically in this position, then she for sure is not in control, as I like to use the ability to breathe as a barometer for positional stability.

And if she can’t control this range of motion statically, then I would be super impressed if she can control it it while dancing.

So what should you do instead?

Try an exercise that forces you to maintain a level pelvis, while extending the back hip. Try something that requires some core stability. Maintaining level pelvis require the abdominals to actively stabilize your spine, and your brain might actually allow your limbs to move freely because they have an anchor.

Like a ship anchored down, it can drift safely within the range of it’s chain. If you want more freedom, you increase the length of the chain. You get that core locked down. This happens in the motor control center of the brain, not at your ligaments.

Try half kneeling variations like a halo or anti-rotation press that challenges you in all planes of movement, maintaining a neutral spine and pelvis, while helping you get into more hip extension. Or just hold half kneeling and breathe, because sometimes, that’s enough of a challenge.

Here is an excellent primer for setting up correctly in half kneeling.

And then progress to something like this:

Think she’s not feeling a stretch? You better believe it. And her core is working like mad to not fall over.

Dance isn’t about flinging yourself into a range of motion that you have no control over. Well, sometimes it is. But that sure doesn’t feel great on the body after a while, and if you are a competitive dancer or gymnast, you know this first hand.

Ligament laxity is super impressive, but is it worth it when you need hip replacements at 30? It’s your call.

 

 

Achieving the Splits Safely

Just a quick (I hope) post today. It’s been a while since the last one, and let’s just say that it’s because I’ve been busy. Doing stuff. And I’m still catching up on work, so today is a cop out blog post where I answer a reader question (which I one that many of you might be wondering about anyway).

The question: When does flexibility become “unsafe”? Are we dancers, with our ligament pathologies intricacies, doomed to be sore and in pain for as long as we remain flexible? How do we know when  (or if) we’ve reached the perfect balance of strength and flexibility?

That’s the gist of the email I received from a lovely reader I’ll call FABIO, for the sake of anonymity.

Hi Monika,

Your post Ligament Pathologies in Dancers- Things You Need to Know” was phenomenal. I’m combing through post after post of yours because of your insights. I was recently diagnosed as hypermobile. I’m a former dancer and have done yoga for years. Several of your posts have had me going “Omg! It’s me! That’s exactly what I do and that’s what happens to me!” While I’m currently working with a physical therapist to strengthen my hip flexors, hamstrings and glutes, she’s suggested I avoid all stretching.

One of my New Year’s resolutions was to regain all 3 splits. Is it possible for someone with all these wonderful ligament pathologies to safely do the splits? Do you have any suggestions regarding strengthening versus stretching? I have tried asking the physical therapist but the answer I generally get out of her is, “it’s complicated.” I’d be really curious to hear your thoughts since I can relate to so much of what you’ve posted.

I always try to take the time to respond when I get awesome emails like this, because when I started writing this blog (which started as a personal brain-dump) I wasn’t anticipating that I’d have real live readers one day. So, yeah, I think it’s pretty cool that there are people out there who think I’m smart and want my opinion. It gives me a warm fuzzy (and my name does mean “advisor”, so I should try to live up to it I guess).

Anyway, here’s (the edited to have no typos version of) how I responded:

Fabio, your question is one that I’m still trying to figure out. What is the most optimal ratio of strength to flexibility for dancers to maintain technical virtuosity while preventing injuries and maintaining a long, healthy career? I wish I had a more satisfying answer but quite honestly it’s a question I consider every single day. Everyday I’m working to come a bit closer to some semblance of an understanding.

Your PT is right- It’s complicated, and every BODY is different. In general, stability, neutrality, and alignment are more important for injury prevention and pain management, but dance (and even yoga) has some extreme aesthetic and athletic demands that take you well beyond your own neutral. And trying to dance in perfect neutral all the time is just. Not. Dance.

My suggestion- experiment safely. Build awareness and get to know your limits. That said, if anyone reading this happens to make any progress in figuring this strength vs. flexibility thing out for themselves, please keep me posted. I’d love to hear about your experiences in body-detectivism.

But I’ll give you an anecdotal example: I have a contemporary/ballet, university-level dance client who dances 5-6 days per week. She can do the splits in all 3 directions, and is probably as flexible as her genetics will allow (with some underlying ligament pathologies, to boot). In the 2 years she has been training regularly with me she has maintained her flexibility, improved her technique, and is stronger than the average chick. She can deadlift close to her own bodyweight for 5ish reps, can do full depth push-ups correctly, can squat proficiently, and has an excellent understanding of how her body moves.

In this time she has had only one minor knee injury, which didn’t stop her from dancing, but required one or two physio appointments. When she originally came to me, she had all sorts of complaints about her lower back and hamstrings. I’d say that’s not too shabby.

But again, that’s HER. Not you. Not anyone else.

Another example is bodybuilders, some of whom despite their huuuuge muscles can still do the splits. Do they also need to jump around and do athletic things? Not as much as dancers do… but I’m just saying that it doesn’t have to be either/or when it comes to strength vs. flexibility, and I hate (strong word!) when fear of losing flexibility is the main reason for not developing strength.

Then there are factors like genetics, injury history, foot wear, habits outside the dance class, lifestyle, diet, etc that can contribute to your optimal level of flexibility and strength.

So… Yes. It’s complicated. It depends on a lot of factors. And to keep this post short (and because I have to get back to  doing “real work”) I’ll end it here.

And for those of you who want something more actionable and sciency to read right now, check out Miguel Aragoncillo’s post about developing flexibility for dance  (keeping in mind that Miguel is a hypermobile bastard , and he is pretty dang strong too).

 

5 Productive Stretches for Dancers

5 Productive Stretches for Dancers

There’s stretching, and then there’s productive stretching. I now only refer to the stretching I do in sessions with my dancers as “productive stretching”.

Mere stretching is unacceptable. My clients deserve better than simply to stretch, and so do you! Why choose to do only a “thing” (to stretch) over an activity with legitimate, progressive returns (a productive stretch)?

Which would you rather choose: Productivity, the act of actually accomplishing something worthwhile. Or, doing stuff for just for the sake of doing stuff.

As much as I like just doing stuff, I came to the conclusion last year that being productive and my happiness level have a direct correlation. It turns out productivity isn’t such a bummer, and I actually like getting stuff done.

Case in point:  Only do productive stretching.

By my above definition of productivity as being the act of actually accomplishing something worthwhile, productive stretching therefore refers to stretching that actually accomplishes something worthwhile: An increase in tissue length and/or desired improvement in joint range of motion and/or changes a neuromuscular pattern of moving in a way that improves execution of important movements and skills, AND can reduce the risk of injury or relieve chronic pain. That’s a very important AND.

In other words, flexibility that will help you dance better and not hurt you.

POP QUIZ:

Does this look productive?

 

Will it make you more flexible? Yeah maybe… But only up until you need hip replacements at the ripe old age of 27. My iliofemoral ligaments hurt just looking at this picture.

Will getting sat on improve motor control, dynamic stability, and help you dance pain-free while preventing injuries? Heck no.

Please don’t do crazy stuff like that. Don’t let your coach sit on you. If not for yourself, do it for me! Because I CARE ABOUT YOU!

It’s funny, I hardly ever stretch with my dancers at all, and when I do, it is generally limited to some mobility or motor control drills, some dynamic stretching to warm up, and I must admit I’m a huge fan of yoga slow-flows and their ability to set your ass on fire while improving range of motion, strength, and building new motor pathways.

Like I wrote about HERE, simply doing common stretches, like lunges to release your hip flexors aren’t that productive. In the case of the pelvis, active mobilization is a better strategy to improve alignment and help with “tightness”. By this I mean using your own muscles to move your bones into a new alignment, and then chill out there and take some deep breaths, which teaches your body to remember that position, increasing the likelihood you’ll actually keep some of that alignment while you’re up walking around, dancing, and carrying your too-heavy bag in one hand, Starbucks cup in the other.

In a nutshell, if you’re already flexible, perhaps well into a degree of being pathologically lax in the ligaments (although I really hate that “p” word) then there are better things you can do with your supplemental training time than stretch more. By simply doing more and longer durations of stretching, a few undersirable things could happen:

  • Muscle becomes overstretched and weak, unable to activate at the right times
  • Joint position becomes altered (ostekinematic changes), causing things to rub together and hurt (labrums, bursae, tendons, etc)
  • Altered motor control around that joint due to ligament and muscle overstretching
  • Muscles around that joint tighten up in an attempt to guard the overstretched joint
  • Overstretching of joint capsule and ligaments (again, causing guarding and feeling of tightness around the joint).

In fact, these days I say, “If it feels tight, DON’T stretch it!”.

And if you are going to stretch something, please breathe while you do it!

So what should you do instead? Try these exercises that serve as mobility drills that can help you to improve joint range of motion as well as training good movement patterns into your system that will allow your joints to stop guarding themselves against the overstretching you might be dishing out (oh your poor ligaments…).

1) For your quads and hip flexors:

Half kneeling is one of my favourite drills and positions. Your goal is to get a stretch for your quads and hip flexors while at the same time you’ll probably feel them burn from activation (along with your butt and hamstrings, hopefully).

Things to consider:

  • Both knees should be at a 90 degree angle
  • Make stance as narrow as possible within a reasonable level of challenge
  • Lift front foot to make sure your weight is not shifted forward onto the front leg. Recheck throughout to make sure you have not drifted forward.
  • Feel maximal stretch possible on front of supporting hip by pressing your knee through the floor, slightly thrusting hip forward, and trying to feel as much space in the hip as possible (like you’re hovering off the floor)
  • Turn head side to side to check balance
  • Breathe with the intention of 360 expansion, directing the breath low, below your bellybutton

 2) More fun for hip flexors, and some calves, too. 

I know- You have tight hip flexors and calves all the dang time. You can kill two birds with one stone and do some split stance breathing. It doesn’t look like much, but this drill (inspired by Anatomy in Motion), when done with awareness of the breath (<– super duper important), can be a really awesome stretch for your calves, hip flexors, and can help with pelvic alignment.

Things to consider:

  • Split stance with feet parallel (don’t let that pesky back foot turn out), as wide or narrow as needed
  • Check in with breathing- Can you breathe low below bellybutton, 360 degree expansion, with full exhalations letting your ribs drop down to hip bones?
  • On an exhale, rotate tailbone through your legs (like a sad dog) to bring pelvis forward, leading the lunge. Front knee can bend a little, back leg stays straight.
  • Keep back heel down and knee straight as much as possible
  • You may feel stretch in calf and/or trailing leg hip, or even inner thigh.

3) For your lower back (if you have a large lordotic curve like me!)

The lower back muscles often become hypertonic, and very overdevelopped, appearing visually hypertrophied (big and sausage-y). However this is not always the case- Some of us are the opposite, so don’t assume that you need to release your lower back because it’s possible you need to get MORE ability to extend your lower back.

You must be careful, very very careful, when stretching the lumbar spine area. Too much stress too soon will hurt your vertebrae, and rather than improving the length of the muscles you might increase their stiffness due to the additional stress and weird forces on the vertebrae and disks themselves. You don’t want that.

The following 2 videos aren’t technically  “stretches”, but are re-positioning/motor control/breathing/core (whatever you wanna call it!) exercises which I have found to be productive in helping to release tension from the lumbar spine erectors.

Things to consider:

  • I stole this exercise from the Postural Restoration Institute. This one helps to release the lumbar erectors while activating the abdominals, hamstrings and adductors, and making you breathe a lot (which is a good thing).
  •  Push feet into wall and pull heels down.
  • Lift tailbone slightly off the floor by pressing knees up.
  • Breathe, trying again to expand all around like a balloon, and try to extend your exhalation to being 3 times as long as you inhale (getting all your air out), and letting the ribs drop down to your hip bones.
  • You should feel this one in your hamstrings and inner thighs and a bit of core, as well as a release for your lower bacl. If you don’t, keep practicing. Same goes if you feel your quads tense up (hint, your quads should stay unclenched)- Keep practicing!

 

Things to consider:

  • Another PRI exercise to actively release the lumbar erectors.
  • You are trying to maintain contact with your mid and lower back (from about bra level to tailbone). Really round your lower back.
  • Same cues as the 90/90 hip lift, but now up on your feet! Breathe, round into the wall, reach your arms.

4) For your abs and butt.

Yes, just because you want to tone and tighten your abs and butt doesn’t mean that they don’t need to learn how to lengthen too! Can you produce force with a sling-shot if you haven’t stretched it back as far as it can go first? Nope. By the same token, you need to be able to feel your muscles stretch to use them. Abs and glutes included.

This is one that is inspired by Dynamic Neuromuscular Stabilization (DNS). In this sidelying reachy exercise (that one of my clients has adorably named the “Starfishy Sideplank”), your goal is to find a stretch for your abs and the bottom glute (among other fun possibilities of muscle-feels).

Things to consider:

  • Lying on side, propped up on elbow, legs in a 90 degrees lunge-type position- bottom leg forward, top leg back
  • Ensure supporting elbow is directly beneath shoulder
  • Press palm and forearm into the floor, rolling it inwards (pronate arm), keeping as much space between ear and shoulder as possible
  • Check in with breathing
  • Reach forward as far as possible with front arm, hold for a breath
  • Lift hips off floor if possible, hold for a breath
  • May feel stretching across back hip, bottom leg glute, upper back/shoulder, ribcage/abdomen, lower back, etc

If you want to learn more exercises like these check out Dance Stronger– My latest creation. Dance Stronger is a multimedia guide for dancers who want to get the tools to help them improve their dancing, prevent injuries, and reduce pain by, you guessed it, getting stronger! Click here to get more info.

You can also sign up and see the first two chapters for free (click the image below! DO IT!).

 

In any case, I’d love for you to try the “stretches” in this post out for yourself and see how they feel. Can you feel the stretches? It might be a little trickier because these are stretches that take a bit of conscious effort to find, not splat stretches where you get sat on.

I hope this was helpful. From now on you must only stretch productively. Deal?

 

 

 

Hip Flexor “Stretching” for the Hypermobile

Hip Flexor “Stretching” for the Hypermobile

First, I have to apologize for misleading you with the title. And for the record, the words stretching and hypermobile should never be used in the same sentence. That was just to lure you into reading this article. Muwhahaha….

Anyway, I haven’t written the following to teach you crazy stretches that will magically cure your chronic hip flexor tightness. Nor will I promise that I can help take your flexibility to the Svetlana level. Safely. With all ligaments still intact…

So I’ve lied to you.

Rather, this article is geared towards the already hypermobile– dancers, gymnasts, yogis and other bendy folks- with several years of stretching under their belts.

You might find that you often feel “tight”, especially in your hips, hamstrings and inner thigh areas. Despite your flexibility and constant stretching, you probably don’t make any real progress in relieving this “tightness”.

I’ve actually written about this before, on why you should probably stop stretching your hamstrings. Today’s message is similar.

They say insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. That said, are you ready to try a new approach to relieving your seemingly tight hip flexors?

Why are your hips tight-feeling and why won’t stretching fix it??

I doubt that you, the bendy person in question, need to stretch as much as you think you do.

In this article, I’m going to share with you what might be a new concept towards relieving hip flexor tightness, and that will help to prevent the injuries that could potentially manifest by trying to stretch your pain and tightness away.

Are you ready for a paradigm shift?

Simply stretching you hip flexors more (often and intensely) won’t make them any less tight

From one bendy person to another (or to a teacher of bendy people), allow me to explain why stretching your hip flexors hasn’t been helping your “tight” hips. It might even be making things worse.

If you are naturally hypermobile, or have been stretching into extreme ranges of motion, like the splits, for years, then it’s safe to say you have a significant amount of joint laxity.

Ligaments, which attach your bones to other bones, are part of what determines a joint’s range of motion, and, due to the need for extreme ranges of motion at the hip in dance, gymnastics and yoga, the ligaments at the front of your pelvis in particular get quite stretched out. Turnout especially has a way of doing really unpleasant things to the joint.

Take care of these guys! The ligaments at the front or your pelvis.

The thing about ligaments is that they can only stretch to about 104% of their original laxity, after which point they will never return to their same length again. Ever.

Ligaments are not like muscles, in that they do not have that same elastic stretchiness to them. Ligaments have a higher proportion of collagen, and less blood flow, meaning that they don’t stretch as well, and don’t heal as well after they’ve been overstretched (past 104%, remember).

Dance, gymnastics, and yoga most definitely make you want to push your ligaments farther than 104% their original laxity. It just feels so good!

As stated on the IADMS website (on the topic of why long duration static stretching to the hip area is not a great idea for dancers):

Prolonged stretch is very similar to static stretch, in that the stretch is held without moving. However, it is held for a significantly longer period of time, several minutes instead of seconds. These stretches are used by medical professionals for very specific and serious medical pathologies and are not appropriate for dancers. They elongate anatomical structures that are supposed to stabilize the joints, i.e. ligaments and joint capsules. Dancers should avoid these stretches as they can lead to loss of stability and serious injury

Dancers frequently use these stretches (either intentionally or unintentionally) when they sit on the floor between classes or while doing homework, maintaining their legs in various stretch positions for long periods of time. For example, lying forward while in second position for extended periods places undue compression of the hip labrum, potentially contributing to future injury.

Truth. My labrum(s) hate me.

Why should you care? 

Cause I said so. Just kidding. I know if you’ve made it to this point in the article, you’ve been reading for a while and you’re about ready to quit and look at funny cat pictures. But for your own safety, I urge you to read on.

Think now about the front of your hips- If the ligament support there has been compromised, what’s left holding the joint together? Other than blind faith, your anterior hip now must rely on muscles for it’s ligament support- your psoas and other hip flexors.

What can also happen is, because the iliofemoral ligament becomes more relaxed in anterior tilt, dancers tend to compensate by tilting the pelvis to feel less restriction in the ligament and get their leg up higher in arabesque. But the line doesn’t look quite right, you won’t be as  strong, and you might hurt your back.

In both cases your psoas starts acting more like a ligament. This is not ideal. Your psoas is a muscle, not a ligament. I hope I’m getting redundant.

While the psoas does provide some stability to the hip and spine posturally, it also has the very important role as prime mover in lifting your leg up high over your head, and other cool things like that.

Trouble getting your leg to 90 degrees? Your psoas isn’t working properly.

With the ligaments not optimally supporting your spine and pelvis, your psoas is now under excess tension in it’s new role of providing stability to the hip and spine, so obviously it won’t be able to lift your leg as high as you want to.

And no wonder it feels kind of tight, eh? (important note: as a Canadian I say “eh” a lot. Deal with it)

And now a new question arises- should you even try to stretch the hip flexors if they are all that’s holding your hip together?

Just because it’s tight, does that automatically mean you should stretch it?

In this case, maybe not.

By stretching one of the only muscles providing support to your hip joint, you might be compromising the stability, and increasing your likelihood for injury.

But it’s a catch 22, because when the psoas become excessively tight, it will pull the pelvis out of place and can cause pain. You’re at risk for things like painful snapping hip, labral tears, and other unpleasant things of that nature.

Are you confused enough now?

Your psoas is too short, and needs to be released, but don’t stretch it because it will make things worse…. So what should you do?

 NOTE: for those who are not hypermobile, and are working on improving their hip flexibility, and actually NEED to, then this applies less to you, but might be good to know as you continue on your journey to flexibility.

Here’s my approach: Train your A-A-A-B-S. This is my version of training ‘dem aaabs, baby.

Assess

Alignment

Awareness

Breathe

Strengthen

The trouble is we often go about this all wrong- We start by doing strengthening exercises, and we hold our breath while doing them. We have little awareness of what our alignment should be, because we haven’t taken the time to get a proper assessment.

Well, shit.

So let’s apply this approach to reducing the tension on the psoas.

Assessment, alignment and awareness. How can you self-assess if your hip flexors might be short and tight? Does your lower back arch excessively? Does your ribcage tend to flare out and up? Do you breathe shallow breaths? Do you have trouble keeping your booty aligned underneath your ribcage? Do you look like this?:

An anteriorally tilted pelvic alignment is common in dancers, which is indicative of chronic tightness in the psoas (among other things), poor breathing, abdominal weakness, and a general lack of awareness of the body’s optimal alignment.

Not only is this position probably going to make your hips feel tight, but being anteriorally tilted at the pelvis makes it difficult to perform many dance exercises compared to when at neutral.

Because in anterior tilt the psoas is shortened and the hip extensors (glutes and hammies) are lengthened, it puts both muscles in a mechanical disadvantage in term of their maximal strength compared to when in neutral alignment, when muscles at both sides of the joint are resting at mid-range (where they are strongest).

An important first step in relieving tight hip flexors is to therefore locate neutral pelvic alignment, and try to use it as often as possible. In dance, and in life. More on neutral spine another time though.

Breathing. Dancers, for the most part, are chronic breath-holders. It’s no use trying to learn a new alignment if you can’t make it stick, and breath is the key. Breathing allows you to live, and likewise, breathing allows you to be fully present and retain the benefits of  each exercise

It would be worth your while to take 5 minutes as part of your warm-up to work on breathing while maintaining neutral pelvis.

An exercise that was given to me was to spend 5 minutes a day breathing- 30 second inhalations and 30 second exhalations. If you do the math, that’s only 5 full breaths in 5 minutes. I think the best I got was 20 seconds, and that was still pretty intense.

When I lose touch with my breath, I notice my nagging low back/SI joint/hamstring injuries like to flare up.

Try that exercise out. It takes focus, but is worth the effort. I promise.

Strengthening. In the case of a chronic, short psoas, your best bet is to strengthen your abdominals, glutes and other important postural muscles like the hamstrings, adductors, and upper back.

And just because the psoas is short and tight, doesn’t mean it’s strong, so spend some time strengthening your hip flexors too.

As stated by Donna Krasnow (and friends) from the article, Effective Use of Turnou:tBiomechanical, Neuromuscular, and Behavioral Considerations

 Proper pelvic alignment in dancers requires that the abdominal muscles and the hip flexor muscles cooperate. Strong abdominal muscles cannot level the anterior pelvic brim when the hip flexors are tight nor can stretched hip flexors prevent anterior pelvic tilt if the abdominal muscles are too weak.

As you are working in a better alignment, and have a strong core able to support your pelvis, the psoas will eventually be able to take a load off, and will be receptive to soft tissue work and stretching.

So to sum up, lengthening the hip flexors in necessary for dancers, who are often stuck with an ateriorally tilted pelvis, but only in concert with proper awareness of neutral alignment, and strengthening of the supporting structures of the pelvis. Got it?

I hope that made sense.

And note that this isn’t a one-time quick fix. You must continue to maintain this balance for as long as you want to keep your body pain-free.

I find that as soon as I stop paying attention to my pelvic alignment (ghetto booty-ing a little too much), and breathing, and neglect my maintenance core and glute exercises, my lower back starts to ache.

It’s also important to confirm which muscles of the hip flexor group are actually tight, as there are few of them:

  • psoas
  • iliacus
  • rectus femoris
  • adductor magnus (anterior postion)
  • sartorius
  • tensor fascia latae (TFL)

A good assessment is therefore key to the overcoming hip flexor “tightness” as quickly as possible.

Anyway, that’s enough words for one blog post, I think. And sitting at my computer is making my back sore. Let me know what experiences you’ve had with tight hips.