5 “Unconventional” Thoughts on Core Training

5 “Unconventional” Thoughts on Core Training

Here we go again… Monika rants about “core training”. Some more.

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)
  • Multifidus
  • Jaw
  • Pelvic floor
  • Diaphragm
  • Internal obliques
  • Lower erector spinae

Extrinsic core musculature (outer unit): More superficial muscles, important in larger movements.

  • Rectus abdominis
  • External obliques
  • Upper erector spinae
  • Hamstrings
  • Adductors
  • 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.

Here’s how:

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.

Inhale Exhale
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”?

On the left, words we use that limit potential movement by asking dancers to contract muscles, and on the right, words we can consider using to encourage dancers to move, allow muscles to lengthen, and explore new ranges of motion. A different perspective on "core training" for some folks, perhaps.

On the left, words we use that limit potential movement by asking dancers to contract muscles, and on the right, words we can consider using to encourage dancers to move, allow muscles to lengthen, and explore new ranges of motion. A different perspective on “core training” for some folks, perhaps.

 

DEDICATE 30 DAYS TO EXPLORING YOUR CORE:

Ready to commit yourself to figuring out this “core” thing? I’ve got just the thing for you:

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.

CONCLUSIONS?

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!

 

 

 

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.