Can you blame me? It’s like the universe wants me to talk about it.
A few weeks ago was invited to lead a core training workshop with a group of dancers at York University. Here’s a little clip for ya:
And just last weekend I was invited on the Eat Well Move Well podcast with Galina and Roland Denzel (two incredible people, wow!), who caught me off guard by stating that I had an interesting way of approaching the core strength idea.
This surprised me because I definitely do not have any new or ideas on the topic. I’m just doing my best to reiterate what the most influential people I’ve had the honour of learning from have taught me in a language that makes sense to myself, my clients, and hopefully to you.
My thoughts on core training are not new, and not that interesting. But for the dance world, I guess they can seem unconventional.
The “core”, much like the Earth, has been around and doing just fine long before we naively intervened and labeled it “core”; it was probably doing better for itself (and for us!) before we tried to systematize, aestheticize, and control it’s training.
I feel uneasy about adding more “new” stuff to this information-cluttered internet-thing we’re addicted to getting answers from, but it hurts me more to see people doing silly things with their bodies *coughtraceyandersoncough* in an ignorant, tone-oriented, sympathetic-driven haze, for the sake of “core strength” and a six pack.
Let’s clear some of that haze, eh?
Here are some of the supposedly “unconventional” ideas on core training I hold that are actually anything but unconventional- They’re quite sensible.
WHAT IS “CORE TRAINING”?
And the reason I feel it is even necessary to write this is because every single dang dancer ever in their career will hear from a teacher that they need a “stronger core”. I’ve yet to meet a dancer who hasn’t.
Core training goes beyond concentrically working the muscles we are commonly taught need to be strengthened and toned.
My approach is guided by five key principles. If you understand these principles and base your training around them, it really doesn’t matter what exercises you choose (for the most part…).
1. Know your anatomy: Understand the intrinsic and extrinsic core subsystems and their roles.
2. Breathing: Learn to create intra-abdominal pressure and load core musculature through your breath.
3. Mobility: Recognize and appraise the need for mobility as a prerequisite for training stability.
4. Remove roadblocks for reactive core: Become aware of compensatory patterns that could be limiting effortless core connectivity.
5. Semantics: Place importance on the words used to describe training, which matter just as much as the physical training.
These principles matter more than the exercises you use.
Let’s go into these in a bit more detail.
1. THOUGHTS ON CORE FUNCTIONAL ANATOMY
It is kind of important to have at least a little bit of understanding of which muscles we’re talking about. Kind of. What’s more important is to FEEL them.
Today my colleague Wensy Wong, kinesiologist and massage therapist, ie has MAJOR anatomy knowledge, told me that it wasn’t until just recently she really understood the psoas, because finally she could feel it. Knowing where a muscle is in a textbook, in 2D, is one thing, feeling it in your body is completely different. You have to experience it to know it.
You can’t say that you know someone personally because you read their autobiography and stalk them on the internet.
Anyway, some anatomy.
The core is more than just the muscles of your trunk and your abs. Think of the core as a hierarchical system of units.
Intrinsic core musculature (inner unit): Deeper muscles, not responsible for creating large movements, but hold “stuff” together.
- Transverse abdominis (TVA)
- Pelvic floor
- Internal obliques
- Lower erector spinae
Extrinsic core musculature (outer unit): More superficial muscles, important in larger movements.
- Rectus abdominis
- External obliques
- Upper erector spinae
- Psoas major
- Quadratus lumborum
Understand that in the hierarchy of the core system, intrinsic subsystem function is most fundamental.
We’d like to see these two systems in balance, performing their proper roles: The instrinsic system holding stuff together and providing adequate intra-abdominal pressure and proprioception (position sensing) so that the extrinsic core can allow us to move freely.
It is possible for all or part of the intrinsic core unit to become relied upon excessively for movement rather than the extrinsic core, and visa versa. Sometimes, one part of the intrinsic unit will be working harder than another in an attempt to find a sense of grounding, counter-balance, or irradiation to increase muscle contractile strength (examples of this coming up a bit further down…).
This should, ideally, be cleaned up and re-trained before performing a more complex, high-threshold exercise. Even a plank can get messy if this system isn’t balanced.
2. BREATH CONTROL = CORE CONTROL
This really should not be considered unconventional. Many people claim to “know” that breathing is important for core connectivity. We hear it every dang day as dancers, yogis, pilates-ers (what’s the plural for a pilates enthusiast?).
So if you really “know” it, then why aren’t you working on it? Why aren’t you teaching it? Why haven’t you made progress with “core strength”? Telling students to breathe isn’t the same as coaching them on how to breathe for core connectivity.
Remember that to know is to have had experienced it. Do you really know how breathing affects core connectivity? Have you ever felt that connection?
This is tricky. It’s something that often requires coaching. Get on that. It’s totally worth it.
The breath allows you to create an “airbag for your spine”, to load core musculature, and create a safe space mentally for you to train, adapt, and recover.
Creating intra-abdominal pressure: Air pressure in the abdominal cavity prevents excessive movement in the spine- dictated by our breathing. Using “umbrella”-style inhalations (360 degree expansion) to fill out the abdominal cavity evenly creates an “air bag” to cushion the spine as it moves freely, allowing muscles to load as a response.
Coupling solid intra-abdominal pressure with an abdominal contraction (by holding the breath in and contracting the abs) is called bracing, and is useful under heavy load. However, this isn’t how you want to get stuck. Life doesn’t always need to be a heavy load, high intensity ordeal… Unless you’re on a reality TV show.
Eccentric and concentric loading: Inhalation, is required for eccentric loading (lengthening) of the abdominal muscles as the abdomen expands. A muscle first needs to be able to lengthen to be contracted effectively, and an 360 degree inhalation does just that.
A full exhalation concentrically contracts the abs and gives us Zone of Apposition (ZOA) with the ribcage depressed. This position allows for a more ideal use of both intrinsic and extrinsic core muscles, because joint position dictates muscle reaction.
|Diaphragm||Concentric contraction (shortening)||Eccentric contraction (lengthening)|
|Abs||Eccentric contraction(lengthening)||Concentric contraction (shortening)|
Autonomic nervous system state: Exhalations bring the nervous system to a safe state of growth, recovery, and flow, where learning and change is possible, by activating the vagus nerve. This state- parasympathetic (opposite of fight/flight), is a state where you should ideally approach training from if you actually want to improve.
So you can do 500 stress-crunches while you hold your breath and grind your teeth. I. Don’t. Care.
3. CORE MOBILITY
All we talk about as an industry (both in dance and fitness) is core stability, being in control, and preventing movement but, consider this: Your spine has 33 joints- It was designed for effortless movement!
Things that are chunks, or planks, or blocks were designed to be rigid by nature of their structure. Things that are designed to have many small parts and joints are naturally intended to allow movement.
So would we train our spines for stability before considering its innate need to move? And I don’t blame you. I was that idiot-trainer making my clients do planks, preaching the value of “stability”, before appraising their spinal mobility. Don’t be idiot-me. You’re better than that.
Consider these four ways that your core craves mobility:
Spinal stability vs. spinal mobility: Preventing the spine from moving by stiffening is useful at times, but full potential for movement of the spine is prerequisite for stability. How long and fast could you ride a bike with a rusty chain and jammed links? Your spine, like a bike chain, needs to have the potential to allow movement at all segments. Appraise the spine’s need for mobility before giving it a stability solution.
Courtesy of Gary Ward, here’s one of my favourite spinal mobility experiences right now- Cogs:
First joints act, then muscles react (to movement): Movement of the skeleton dictates muscle (re)action. The goal is not to forcefully activate and and consciously engage the core, but to allow it to reflexively fire as a reaction to movement. So movement of the spine and pelvis, to which “core” musculature attaches, is necessary for the muscles to load and contract.
Muscles must lengthen before they contract: Like a slingshot, muscles “load to explode”. Training only concentrically by shortening muscles to create movement (think crunches) does not replicate this natural function. Excessive “tone-seeking”, thus, can prevent lengthening, reducing mobility and reactivity, and limiting performance. Concentric work is useful, but length needs to be created before you can earn the right to shorten.
Management of base of support within center of mass: How much movement can your center of mass access within your base of support? How far can you shift without moving your feet before you fall or need to take a step? Core muscles react as the body moves away from and back towards center.
When we keep things “tight” constantly it doesn’t allow this natural movement in and out of our base of support. Finding “center” therefore, is more a result of experiencing a full spectrum of movement, not of keeping things tight.
4. REMOVING ROADBLOCKS: COMMON CORE COMPENSATIONS
Remember above I mentioned there are ways the core systems can become out of balance? This can happen be due to trauma, injury, habitual ways of holding our bodies, or repetitive patterns of moving. These roadblocks can prevent our bodies from accessing joint movements and positions.
Many of us unconsciously develop strategies to get around these roadblocks. These “compensations” are not bad. THANK your body for finding these clever strategies and allowing you to continue to move and live. Know that they aren’t serving you anymore, address them head on, and find a new way through them, not around.
Here are some common road-blocks for dancers (and most humans):
- Breath-holding: Can cause diaphragm to be used more as a muscle of stabilization (due to it’s connection to the spine) than respiration, influencing spine/ribcage position, movement potential, and ability to recover from training.
- Jaw clenching/shifting: An attempt for proprioception, counterbalance, co-contraction, or a response to stress and strain and is commonly found to be facilitated in relation to abdominal function.As Dr. Kathy Dooley explains HERE:
Because the TMJ has more proprioception per surface area than any other joint in the human body, you will go where your jaw shifts you to go…When the jaw shifts, the center of mass shifts. This will down-regulate recruitment of the opposite side core in the sagittal plane.
- Pelvic floor: Part of the intrinsic unit, tightness, overworking, weakness, sub-optimal positioning, digestive function, organ issues, urinary control, all influence core function.
- Mobility limitations in general: Can affect the ability of core muscles to load, reducing their role ability to react to movement (limited hip mobility, and spine segmental mobility in at least one of three planes is fairly safe to assume…).
You cannot change that which you are not yet aware of. Do you know which roadblocks could be in your path?
Sometimes, just cultivating awareness and openness to change is all it takes to make a shift. Other times, it is necessary to seek guidance from a movement coach or therapist to help you. NeuroKinetic Therapy (TM) practitioners and Anatomy in Motion folks are trained to discover and unwind these compensatory strategies (but so can most good therapists of any background).
5. CORE SEMANTICS
As a writer, I appreciate the power of words, and I know a lot of you do, too. But the correlation between core training and the words we traditionally use to talk about it in dance is particularly interesting. And in major need of change.
“Core semantics” shape our results, and require a consideration equal to the physical training itself, as we speak to ourselves and guide others as dancers, teachers, therapists, and parents.
In the table below, which column sounds more useful? Which sounds more like dance? Which choice of vocabulary will you apply to your “core training”?
I suppose if you had to take just one thing away from this article it would be that core training is really just a result of allowing your body to explore movement and breath so it can do what it needs to do when it needs to do it.
Need to lift something heavy? Make sure you have access to all ranges of motion necessary to do that and understand how to breathe for that situation.
Need to balance on one leg for 30 seconds? Make sure you have access to all ranges of motion necessary to do that and understand how to breathe for that situation.
Simple as that. Maybe too simple. But simple does not mean easy.
Funny how just by allowing you body to move into ranges of motion that have been denied or avoided, breathing appropriately for the situation, using a more helpful choice of words, and getting some help when you get stuck the “core” just kind of takes care of itself without much time and energy spent on “training the abs”.
For more information on unconventional/sensible ways of training for dance, check out Dance Stronger: A multi-media resource created to help you understand the why and how of training breath, movement, and strength to improve dance performance and reduce soreness. Available by donation, so no excuses 😉 Get training!