We are the third week into the semester at the dance academy I work at here in beautiful Torono.
I am super stoked. Why am I so stoked? I’ve never had the opportunity to work with one dance class progressively for the course of a semester. I’ve done drop in classes with rather irregular attendance, but nothing enhances one’s progress like making it mandatory to show up for class in order to graduate.
I thought it might be nice to share the progress of the class and my observations. And, as always, when I write, I learn. So it will be a nice practice for me to retrieve details deep from my brain. Maybe some of you will even enjoy reading this. And maybe, so will I…
Last semester I did in fact work with the 1st year class at the academy, however, last semester I was not a great teacher. I was gone for a lot of the semester.
First, I was away for a total of 5 weeks to present some things at a conference in Hong Kong, then to study Thai massage in Thailand, and studying Anatomy in Motion in Melbourne.
Then, after a series of unfortunate events involving my own idiocy, a few missed flights, and overstaying my visa in China and nearly needing to pay my way out (a place I had not intended to be in the first place, let alone get stuck in for more than 24 hours), and then contracting the plague after arriving back in Canada three days later than scheduled. So I ended up missing 7 classes that semester. My bad.
This semester, things will be different.
THE FIRST CLASS…
I wanted this class to place an importance on both education- the understanding of why we’re doing what we’re doing, as well performing the physical work to enhance their movement quality and general strength (as is the theme of the class).
I had lofty ideals for this class. I had planned out how I wanted to assess the students at the beginning of the semester, how I would re-assess at mid-terms, how the class would progress, etc. Well, none of that happened. Welcome to reality.
The time-limit factor.
I have 60 minutes per week with them. This ends up being more like 50 minutes per week since they are consistently 10 minutes late for class, and then have to rush off to ballet class immediately after we are done.
Side note: I am super curious to get their feedback on how ballet class feels after having done my class first. More data needs to be collected…
Side note two: The entire class is injured in some way.
So, realizing that 50 minutes per week would not allow me to execute my grandiose vision, I complied with reality, and reduced the amount of “stuff” we’d tackle in a session.
In any case, it is more beneficial to focus on less stuff more deeply, than to do more stuff, superficially. I’d rather the class get through 3 exercises in a deep way, with understanding, feeling what they are doing in a way they can replicate on their own, than 12 exercises just going through the motions in a disconnected way.
I planned for the first class to be entirely a movement exploration. No “strength” training. Not even any real “movement practice”. Just exploring and finding out where they are now. Unfortunately, the heat was off in the studio that day and it happened to be about -20 outside, and so my poor students we freezing to death on the one day we weren’t moving enough to break a sweat. #SorryNotSorry.
What was the assessment? Call it more of a check-in. We don’t have the means/budget to do any objective testing that would require reliable equipment (like a vertical jump test) nor do we have the time to do a lot of assessing. So what can we do to ensure they are still progressing class to class? The dancers can learn the fine art of checking in (as per rule #7). And truly, it is an art and a skill. One that, as we practice, we can hone to move from more subjective to more objective.
For example, if I were to ask you to stand quietly and try to feel your foot pressures on the floor, you may feel that we are standing with equal pressure on both feet, not rolled to the inside or outsides, or weighted more to the front or back of your feet. Maybe you feel pretty dang centered. In reality, what the outside observer might see is that you could be standing with your pelvis shifted to the right, yet feeling centered. In this case, what you’re feeling is likely not to be an accurate read of your foot pressures. Your subjective experience is not matching with reality.
Arguing with reality is a waste of energy. I personally don’t recommend it.
Over time, the ability to improve your objective perception of your body can be trained, much like any other skill. As you learn to feel your body in stillness, and learn how it reacts to various movements, tuning in to what changes, along with someone observing and giving you some feedback from their point of view, you can start to put together a more honest picture of what your body is doing.
One dancer I once had in class told me her feet felt even. The way she was standing told me this could not be the case. “Are you sure that’s true?” I asked her. “I don’t know….” was her reply. At the end of the class, she remarked, “I can feel my arches!”. So, I asked, what did that mean? “At the beginning of class you didn’t know what was happening with your feet, now you have arches. What happened?” Was she standing more on the insides of her feet before, and now she was more centered on her feet? Less everted? Again, she didn’t know. Not yet.
This is the beginning of the process and speaks to the importance of the check-in before and after a movement session. The more information we can gather and correlate with before and after experiences, the better sense we can get of where our bodies are really at.
The check in.
So we checked-in. Foot pressures. Pelvis, ribcage, and skull motion in 3D (a la Anatomy in Motion). And natural spinal motion in sagittal plane. Basic stuff.
- The majority of these dancers don’t know their pelvis from their ribcage. This is a bit of an issue as, in gait and many other activities, for efficiency of movement we need the pelvis and ribcage to oppose each other in all planes of movement. If you rotate your ribs to the right, your pelvis should be able to stay where it is, or, rotate left. This rules is true for shifting, hiking, side-bending, and anterior/posterior tilting, too. The result of this opposition is that we create space between our ribs and pelvis, joints get to open and close, abdominal tissues get to load and contract in response to motion, blood and other fluids gets to go where there was previously no motion, and we can access the lateral and spiraling motions so common in dance more effortlessly.
- Breathing in an “ideal” pattern is not a thing for these guys. This exists on a spectrum in this class- Some dancers couldn’t close their mouths, sit still, or get the breath out of their chests, and others got right into the zone (of apposition…). Interestingly, having seen these dancers perform in their dance exams, it was evident that, for the most part, the dancers who demonstrated a more ideal pattern of breathing (diaphragmatic, 360 expansion, ZOA with exhalation, etc), or were able to change their pattern of breathing with gentle cueing, were the ones that stood out to be as being more interesting to watch dance. Perhaps there is some sort of study someone in the dance science world could do…
- Spinal motion needs a lot of work. Meaning, their quality of spine flexion (rounding), and extension (arching) lacked the freedom and range of motion that would make their lives a lot easier. Many of them have only a few points they hinge off of, so the load sharing through their spines is not kind to them. Too, the natural opposition that should occur between the lumbar and thoracic spine, and the cervical spine, is not yet natural for many of them. Below is a quick recap of what that means:
Then, I asked them how many joints their spines had. Long pause… One dancer finally guessed, “seven?”. “Well, maybe that’s how many YOU have”, I joked.
Our spine has 33 joints. It is my aim for them to be able to feel that and use that mobility in their dancing. And seeing as nearly all the dancers in this class complain of back pain, what better place to start than with their spines.
So, after the check in, we did a little 10 minute exploration of that, and checked in again. Some dancers reported changes in their foot pressures, feeling more centered. Some did not. Either way, it was useful information for all of us.
Onward we go.
THE GENERAL CLASS STRUCTURE
Unfortunately, the 50ish minutes per week we have together is not sufficient to get through the amount of stuff that ideally we’d have time to do. Some equipment would be nice, too. Maybe some kettlebells and some resistance bands would be cool. Maybe at least some mats to make kneeling on the floor comfortable.
Fortunately, I like and am used to minimalism, so the equipment we have to work with is their bodies, the floor, and the air they breathe. I think it will be sufficient.
With the limited time it was a task prioritization challenge to design the curriculum. In an ideal world, we’d have two sessions per week together as a minimum. One class we might spend more time working on movement quality and some more subtle stuff, and the other session more time might be spent on strength development.
In any case, this world ain’t ideal. Here is roughly how each class flows right now:
- Check in. At the beginning of each class we check in consistently with 2 or 3 simple measures.
- Movement preparation/warming up. In this phase we work on things like breathing, spinal mobility, differentiating body parts (remember, your pelvis is not your ribcage!), accessing tri-planar movements, foot mechanics (accessing pronation/supination), dynamic “stretches”, and lower threshold core stability work, getting them warm and primed to move in a more efficient way.
- Actual strength building stuff. Right now, this portion of the class is much shorter, maybe ⅓ of the class time. There is a learning curve for the preparatory/movement quality portion of the class, and each dancer is at a different place. Rather than rush forward, leaving people behind, we go slower and in that way we’ll all make more progress in the long-term. So far we have been learning single leg deadlifts, crawling, and push-ups.Side note: I was super impressed that everyone in this class could do one push-up. That almost never happens.
- Check-in/cool-down. We check back in with the measures from the beginning of class. What has changed, and what hasn’t? We might revisit some breath-work to calm their systems down, and prepare them for the next 90 minutes they will spend looking at themselves in a mirror wearing a bodysuit and pink tights, holding their breath, wishing they had more hip rotation, more flexibility, pointier feet, longer legs, and generally, wishing they were better than they are now: Ballet…
So far, I’m really enjoying this class structure. The difficult bit is making time for everything that is a priority. With more experience, I suppose this will become easier and more intuitive, and it will also depend on the individuals in the class.
Ideally, I’d love the class to be driven by what the dancers want to accomplish and are curious about. I recall several classes last semester in which we sometimes took 10 minutes to discuss ideas that were foreign to them, but important for their progress. Like how lifting your leg up in front of your was not an action performed by the hamstrings, and that “quads” is not a bad word. Getting dancers to learn how to squat seems to go hand in hand with the quads-are-not-bad conversation. Good times.
THEIR PROGRESS SO FAR.
The injured dancers aren’t improving much, which it does not please me to report… I don’t know much about the kind of therapy they are receiving, if any, and they have a strenuous schedule. Too, there is still the fear of taking time off to recover from injuries for being left behind the rest of the pack.
I witnessed a 1st year student, in last semester’s dance exams, dance every single one on a sprained ankle. By then end of the exam week, it was very clear that she should not be dancing, but when you have to make the call between saying you can’t dance, and risking your grades, and taking time off… Well, I’ve been there. It’s a tough call to make that inevitably ends with you not making a choice- Your body says “nope”, and you stop.
- Overall, the rest of the dancers are doing quite well. I have observed that many of them are developing more movement into spinal flexion each week. (Every single dancer in this class has a flat board for a lumbar spine that does not want to budge. But slowly, this is changing.)
- Their focus is improving. At first, it seemed as if they had trouble keeping their mind on the movements we were performing. Some of them seemed to need to stop, and look around the room for a bit before getting back into the movement practice. Each week they seem to be developing more “mental endurance”, and are able to spend more time practicing the movements, and less time getting distracted and re-connecting. As we know, more time spent in deep work/deliberate practice/flow (whatever term you prefer)= better results.
- Breathing and bracing, and creating intra-abdominal pressure is now a concept they embrace and can demonstrate while lying on their backs. This is awesome. One or two dancers are lagging behind here, but overall the group is kicking butt and getting stronger each week and ready to increase the challenge.
SOME OTHER CHALLENGES
As you would expect from a group of collegiate level dancers with goals to perform professionally, these guys are quick adapters with pretty good body awareness. They are mature 18-20 year olds who want to perform their best and are motivated.
The challenge is, they are stuck “on”, and “on” is their comfort zone.
There is a level of arousal that is optimal for performance, and the sense I get is that these dancers are wayyy shifted to the right (aroused) side of this scale. Too much arousal, too much sympathetic nervous system activity, means they will not perform at their best.
I feel ethically not great about giving them a class that is also “ON” (such as a high intensity class) while they are unable to leave their “on” state, as many of them seem to be at this point. I would rather, and feel it is more beneficial at this time, give them the tools to turn themselves down to “medium”, maybe even to “low”, so that they can experience this end of the spectrum, and go back to on, full-force, when it’s required of them.
You can’t turn on unless you can turn off first, and no one gets stronger without allowing themselves a sufficient amount of recovery. This is why we focus for the first part of the class on tuning in, quality of movement, and noticing their breath. Intensity is modulated (challenge/level of exertion) as they can handle it.
Dancers are not athletes that typically receive much guidance on recovery, guidelines for strength training effectively, nutrition, etc. In 50 minutes, I can’t convey everything I would like to, but I can start, and chip away at it every week. It’s been inspiring so far, and a lot of fun.
We’re only three weeks in… Let’s see what these dancers can do.
Are you ready for a good, old fashioned, 2000+ word blog post, just like I used to do? Yeah you are!
Will this be my last rant of 2016?
Probably. But less of a rant, more of an expansion on a frustration.
This blog post is meant to serve as a follow up to a response I wrote on Facebook to Lisa Howell’s recent blog post on The Ballet Blog, on why dancers should reconsider using a theraband to strengthen their feet. Lisa’s primary issue with pointing into a theraband: Because dancers are likely to scrunch their toes, overwork flexor hallucis longus and other muscles of the calf, and do the exercise wrong. Banded foot-pointery could do more harm than good, so safer not to do it at all.
Oh wait, I lied! There was a time when I used therabands. At the very least I can console myself in the fact that I was trying to help this dancer with her ankle dorsiflexion, not pointing into the band. But still…
In my commentary on my Facebook page (join me!), I agreed that I don’t often (ever, to this point) use a theraband for foot exercises with training clients, but for slightly different reasons than “they’ll probably do it wrong”. I received some comments on asking for a little more info, disagreeing, or sharing their faith in the band to do good.
It’s about time someone questioned my writing:
“using the band save my feet from injury and allow me to strength them in a pretty optimal way so I do not agree. I do when you say that it must be used properly but it’s indeed a really useful tool…”
…band work is a great way to reduce load on the joint, muscles, or tendons during rehab, for example. If a dancer is injured and can’t perform closed chain actions, why wouldn’t you offer band work as an option? A simple solution to the problem of curling the toes is to place the band at the ball of the foot, rather than around the toes. Cue the dancer to keep toes relaxed and point the “foot”, not the toes.”
“Can you comment on restoring ideal movement mechanics?”
I hope to reply to some of those questions/comments now.
My blog post today relates to four primary themes on theraband use:
1) Most peoples’ goals are vague to non-existent when they pick up a resistance band. They don’t know why they’re doing what they’re doing.
2) The open chain nature of banded foot exercises are likely not to contribute to ideal joint mechanics when the foot is on the ground, and area in which dancers need a lot of help.
3) What if the foot isn’t the root of the problem, just a symptom?
4) Will the banded foot-pointery not actually drive dancers deeper into their dance-specific adaptations rather than help them with what they specifically hoped it would? Which brings us right back to point one…
Just what is the goal, exactly?
And don’t say, “to strengthen my arch”, “ankle stability”, or “injury prevention”. That isn’t enough information. Most dancers (and dare I say, some teachers!) doing these exercises aren’t clear on their why.
Fitting that I just finished reading (audiobooking, rather) Start With Why, by Simon Sinek. SInek says, if you have your “why”, the what and how will follow, but without a why, the what means nothing. And while he is speaking primarily of business, this is true on all other levels of life, including your body.
But also, dance IS your business. Your body is one of your most valuable assets, and maybe it’s time to start treating it as such. What if you tried not just doing shit because so and so does it, or it looks cool, or because someone told you to. Make decisions congruent with your best interest in mind.
Unfortunately, I get the sense that many dancers don’t know what “best interests” means. Or they do, but choose to ignore it.
Let’s start with the “why” in the case of these banded foot pointing exercises- The foot’s equivalent of the sit-up. No one’s saying sit-ups are bad (well, some people are…), but you should know why you’re doing them and understand if it’s a choice that matches your goal.
What’s the goal?
Injury rehabilitation? To strengthen your ankles? More “stability”? To improve the arch of your foot? We need to be more specific, and to do that, we need to know more about you, the individual, and where you are right now.
Let’s say, for example, you landed a jump kind of hard and awkwardly and have some shooting pains in your ankle. Or maybe you changed directions quickly in class, slipped, and sprained your ankle. Is this a job for the band? Surely pointing your foot into a band for five minutes before class will help make your ankle more stable, which is what you need, right?
Let’s consider that the most common injuries in dance are to the foot and ankle. Sprains, shin splints, stress fractures, and broken bones etc.
What do these all have in common? Normally, these types of injuries happen while the foot is on the floor. Do we ever see foot and ankle injuries while the foot is in the air? Maybe through impact and direct trauma, but rarely, if not ever, does someone break their foot or sprain an ankle while it is in the air.
These injuries happen due to the way the foot and ankle react (or don’t react…) on the floor, in coordination with the rest of the body.
So if the way the foot interacts with the floor is the issue, for example, why the heck is a common solution to strengthen the foot with a band in an open chain? It just doesn’t make much sense.
Let’s go to town.
Open vs. closed chain
Open chain refers to the foot being off the floor, closed chain refers to the foot being in contact with the floor. The supporting leg in an arabesque is closed chain, the “up” leg, is open chain.
In gym-world, a squat is a closed chain exercise, and a seated leg extension is open chain.
Here’s the important bit: The foot and ankle do completely different things in open vs. closed chain.
Gait (walking) is predominantly closed chain (save for early and late swing). The implication is that the majority of what our brains recognize to be “natural” and useful movements for our bodies are in closed chain, walking being what our bodies were primarily set up to do. Working with how the body is designed to move through gait allows us to make incredible changes to how our bodies move, feel, and perform. This means, more often than not, working in closed chain.
In closed chain, the forefoot and rearfoot should move in opposition to each other due to the foot’s need to be in contact with the floor. If this opposition didn’t take place, the foot would act more as one big chunk rather than 33 articulating joints.
In a closed chain, the foot pronates and supinates.
In open chain, without the floor to provide sensory information, the foot does not oppose like it does when we walk. In open chain, the foot everts and inverts.
An important distinction to make here is between pronation and eversion, and supination and inversion. Pronation and supination are tri-planar movements involving opposing inversion and eversion the rearfoot, foorefoot, and toes.
Because the 1st met is off the ground, the left foot in this image is not supinated, its inverted.
Neither of these movements are good or bad. It simply is important to know the difference in order to make choices that support your goal.
Unfortunately, when it comes to supplementary training, the most popular forms of training for dancers are open chain, lying on the floor. This is fine, but it should not be the only form of exercise they do if we want to prepare them for the demands of dance when they stand up.
Let’s continue with the landing a jump example.
How is it possible for such graceful creatures as dancers to land jumps like a ton of bricks? I’ve been sitting on the exam panel at the dance school I work at this week, and it has honestly been painful to watch the students jump.
If we look at the foot as the first point of contact with the floor upon landing, much is left to be desired.
Upon landing a jump, the foot must quickly pronate (but not too much or too quickly) which will load the tissues on the bottom of the foot, and, like a spring, automatically resupinate the foot as the muscles catch and react to the force of the movement, propelling off the landing leg.
If we have trained dancers not to pronate (misinterpreting when and why pronation is useful) they will be landing a jump with a rigid foot and ankle, which feels pretty terrible. If we only recommend the use of bands to strengthen ankles and feet, we are never allowing them to access a hugely important component of landing a jump- Letting the bones of the foot spread to absorb force, aka, pronation.
I will speak primarily for ballet and contemporary dance in which the aesthetic of the art often interferes with the “ideal” mechanic for landing a jump. I was taught not to let my feet pronate, to push my knees out past my pinky toes, and keep my butt tucked under while I jumped, keeping “neutral” through my pelvis and spine. This aesthetic makes it nearly impossible to absorb shock, which is why the dance studio turns into a herd of elephants when it’s time to jump. I’m sure you know what I mean…
In fact, I already wrote about this HERE. But no one said much about it or seemed to care either way. It’s cool.
I also gave a talk/workshop on this last year at York University.
Wow, my hair was short!
Let’s talk a bit more about pronation
Pronation is a tri-planar movement:
- In the sagittal plane the forefoot dorsiflexes and the rearfoot plantarflexes.
- In the frontal plane the forefoot inverts and the rearfoot everts.
- In the transverse plane the forefoot abducts (or externally rotates) and the rearfoot internally rotates.
The exact reverse is true for supination.
Recall that in gait, the foot, as a unit, should not invert and evert while on the ground (and even continues to oppose in swing to a degree), because this does not allow for a tripod to be in contact with the ground, or, we end up with a very reduced tripod.
Pronation is precious.
In the gait cycle pronation happens just once per step we take.
It is the only time in which the bones on the bottom and medial side of the foot spread open, and the muscles on the bottom of your foot and some of the back of the ankle (achilles tendon, calf), lengthen. This is the way your brain recognizes these muscles lengthening to be safe and useful in order to walk- It’s the way the muscles were set up to decelerate (lengthen under tension) your bones most efficiently as your foot hits the ground.
Sagittally speaking, with each step you take, your plantar fascia, and all the muscles that connect under your foot- tibialis posterior, flexor hallucis longus, flexor digitorum longus and brevis, and all the others under there that support the foot’s arches, will lengthen, and, in response to this lengthening, receive the input required to contract and pull the foot into supination.
As per Gary Ward’s rules of movement from his book What the Foot: A muscle must lengthen before it can contract. We cannot just eliminate one end of the spectrum and expect there not to be consequences.
If, as you walk, dance, and live, you avoid pronation, the muscles of supination will never get a chance to lengthen. Sure you can roll them out with a ball, but that doesn’t change the fact that your foot doesn’t ever use these muscles in movement through their full lengthening-shortening spectrum, they become stuck.
If you are to only train your feet with a band, to contract concentrically, you will have a very hard using muscles to absorb shock as you land a jump, as well as trouble using these muscles to point your foot.
But what about winging? Shouldn’t I use a band to train my ankles not to sickle?
Winging the foot is a weird movement, but by classical standards it looks pretty, so it’s here to stay.
The things we do for winged feet…
Winging, as in the back foot in an arabesque line, is an open chain movement involving:
- Rearfoot, forefoot, and toe plantarflexion.
- Rearfoot and forefoot eversion.
- Whole foot in external rotation.
Not the most natural feeling thing to do…
Maybe your teacher has told you not to sickle your feet, so it’s off to the band to strengthen your feet into a winged position.
But before you set your peroneals on fire with the theraband, or do something silly with the Ballet Footstretcher, consider how this might affect how your feet perform when they are on the floor.
Knowing what you do now about foot opposition when it is on the ground, and the importance of this for shock absorption, and allowing muscles to lengthen and contract (which will actually improve your arch not make it worse), how useful do you think using the band will be for you?
Yes, it will be great for practicing what your foot does when your leg is off the ground, but what if that’s all you do to cross train? What happens when it’s time to jump? Have you prepared your body effectively to cope with that kind of stress?
I’m not saying don’t use the band, but before you do, consider these two things:
- Does using a band match your goal? Do you really need to strengthen your foot muscles, or would it be more useful to give your feet an experience in closed chain, allowing the bottom of your foot to open, lengthening and contracting the tissues through their full range as they were intended to as you move.
- If you are using a band specifically to reinforce an adaptation for dance, such as winging and pointing your feet, just make sure you have a strategy to unwind that so that your feet also understand what to do when they are on the floor. It might be interesting to check first, before practicing a specific skill to death, whether enhancing natural movement mechanics will get the job done on its own.
In the end, there are no right or wrong ways to train your body, but you must know why you are doing what you are doing.
One person’s “wrong” might be your “right”. There may be a time and a place to use a band, just make sure you know what that is for you.
In Dance Stronger, we go into more detail, and a few exercises that integrate pronation and supination in full body movements. If you are interested in going deeper into what I’m talking about in this blog post, you might be interested in checking the resource out.
Questions? Comments? Observations? Abuse? Let me know what’s going on in your head.
Read THIS BLOG POST if you want a bit more background on what Anatomy in Motion is, and my experience with the course the first time around.
Yep, I did it again.
I got #shiftphased for a second time. In other words, I spent last week studying the human body in motion with Gary Ward and Chris Sritharan of Anatomy in Motion at the beautiful Integrated Exercise Therapy facility in Bridgehampton New York.
Although this is actually suspension phase…
Why did I do it again?
Some things in life are so good you have to repeat them. In fact, I plan on taking it again.
AiM is not a model for fixing people’s pain or movement. Through the Flow Motion Model we are not learning how to heal people, but how to help facilitate their own process of “letting go”; providing the body experiences to reclaim what it is currently missing- What it can’t do or won’t do, and trusting that it will be able to heal itself if given the option.
Inevitably, by immersing ourselves in a process of exploring new ways to interact with ourselves and others, our class let go of a lot of shit in New York last week.
People’s bodies changed as they experienced movements their systems were being denied. Other’s made decisions to completely change the way they practice with clients. It was an honour to witness these transformations.
I observed as one class-mate experienced his frontal plane for the first time in who knows how long.
I saw my friend fully extend her knees post double ACL surgeries for the first time in 15 years, and effortlessly bend down to touch her toes, something she hadn’t been able to do since before her injuries.
And I saw another class-mate left speechless, with a huge grin on his face, as he reclaimed sagittal plane spinal motion.
In six days, bodies changed, paradigms shifted, life paths altered. These are things I can’t describe with words. But I’ll try.
What is Anatomy in Motion?
To get a full appreciation of the philosophy AiM is built upon, I’d recommend reading Gary’s book, What the Foot.
Here’s my “Spark Notes” version, for what it’s worth:
AiM is a model for looking at human motion as it occurs in the gait cycle (the Flow Motion Model).
Gait is walking, and walking is hopefully what you spend most of your time as a human being doing. Or not doing…
Which each full cycle through your right and left side in gait, each joint in your body has the opportunity to perform all of it’s potential movement in three dimensions, which takes between just 0.6 to 0.8 seconds. Doesn’t that blow your mind a little? That you can take two steps and every one of your joints will have moved in all planes of motion that it possess.
What does this mean for you? That one second is a precious bit of time. Just one rep can be an opportunity to heal, or not.
Less than a second can be used to experience optimal movement variance- Tappable potential. With each step you can heal, or you can feed a repetitive pattern that could lead to sub-optimal system adaptability and a skewed ratio of the two “p” words we love: Pain and performance.
Optimal joint motion through the human gait cycle lets you “walk it off”, and walk things in.
Sub-optimal movement, missing movement, and even missing entire planes of movement, makes performing well challenging, and pain common.
This is the beauty of AiM: It teaches us how to heal through the simplicity of the most fundamental thing we do as humans beings. Walking!
I’d like to use today’s blog post to share some takeaways from my second time through AiM’s six day “finding center” immersion course- The course that makes me feel OK about not having a formal education in biomechanics stuff, because it only means is I have less noise to unlearn (a serious challenge for many clinicians learning this material).
No headaches this time!
I don’t generally get headaches, but when I do it’s because I’ve been thinking too much. The night I launched Dance Stronger in September 2015, for example, I had a massive headache.
Last November when i took the course in Toronto for the first time I developed a headache by the end of day 2 which persisted throughout the 4 subsequent days.
A note to future attendees: It helps very much to start the course being able to name the bones of the foot. Other bones in the body, too, but the foot in particular was my sticking point, a body part we don’t spend enough time learning about in school.
As a fine-arts major with minimal formal education in anatomy, bio-mechanics, or anything “sciency”, anything related to fitness, training, (read anything I’m currently doing with my life), I am not ashamed to say that I have major gaps in my knowledge base. I often find myself in situations where I am the underdog, the least intelligent person in the room, and with no choice but to rise to the challenge (hopefully…).
A note for the dancers: For dancers transitioning into new careers, your lack of formal education need not stop you from diving into something new. Skills and character traits you acquire as a dancer are absolutely transferable to any career path in huge ways.
My first time through AiM I didn’t know what the talus bone was. To be honest, I didn’t know what any of the foot bones were.
This meant I was simultaneously learning the 26 moving bones, 2 non-moving bones, and 33 joints interactions of the foot, while being asked to appreciate the 3 dimensional movement potential of the rear foot, forefoot, and toes through each phase of the gait cycle as it relates to the rest of the body.
“What does the rear foot do in relation to the pelvis in the frontal plane during the shock absorption phase of gait?” Wait… What’s the rear-foot? What’s the frontal plane??
Enter headache city. Somehow I made it out alive, and even wanting more.
But enough about my educational short-comings.
While the AiM course material is badass and can help people change the way they move and feel in insanely short periods of time, the number one reason to take this course is simply to learn from Gary and Chris in person- Two of the most patient, generous, intelligent, and honest individuals I’ve met. Being in the same room as them guarantees you level up in one way or another through osmosis (unless you’re a podiatrist… Just kidding. Mostly).
I want to share some of the most beautiful, wise, and hilarious things that Gary and Chris conveyed, and while these were communicated in the context of teaching a room of clinicians, trainers, and bodyworkers, they apply to anyone who takes a vested interest in how to optimize the way their bodies (and lives) perform.
ON MOVEMENT AND BEHAVIOUR
AiM doesn’t just teach anatomy, it teaches a metaphor applicable on every level of our lives. We can’t look at how someone moves or holds themselves without wondering what behaviours brought them into being. Any trouble that appears in our body will also show itself at some other level in our lives. The same laws of motion we apply to anatomy and biomechanics also can apply to our relationships, experiences, and interactions in nearly every domain.
The big (complicated) questions: Why do things hurt? Why do we adapt a particular posture or way of moving, even if it is less desirous long term? Why do we adopt “dysfunctional” patterns?
The big (simple) answer: Because they are serving us.
Pain serves simply as information we can use to help us change and create new opportunities. Inefficient movement presents in our bodies as a result of us bravely coping with an internal or external stressor, sometimes expressed as pain. This is a beautiful way of thinking!
May we be grateful for the signals and strategies our bodies lend us that allow us to cope and keep on keeping-on despite our duress. But may we also be wise enough to notice them and adjust accordingly.
To paraphrase and blend the verbiage of Gary and Chris:
Why do people move or hold themselves the way they do? Because it serves them! It’s not something to get down about. They are using their most “balanced”, available point.
Other good stuff they said:
“We can’t change the way you move until we can change the value you get from it” ~GW (as mentioned above, we do things with our bodies because they serve us, but that doesn’t mean this is the most efficient way of doing things in the long term. We need a “pattern interrupt” and a superior reward from a new, more sustainable habit)
“You ground your own bones, you striated your own muscles” ~CS (on taking self-ownership and acknowledging our formative behaviours)
“Are you working with it or working on it? If you’re working on it, the CNS will whoop your ass every time”. ~CS (on meeting your body where it’s at, choosing new words for your experience, and practicing non-attachment)
“We can move anything without moving IT, by moving everything else” ~GW (on the illusory strategies we use to keep us in motion. For example, to keep my head level on the horizon, I don’t need to move it, but everything else in my body can move around it to create the illusion of neck movement)
ON THE SUBJECTIVE SIDE OF THINGS…
A huge part of the course is appreciating the art of the self-check-in, which we did everyday as a class.
Subjective, yes, but often all that really matters to the people we are trying to help is their subjective experience.
Objective measures can and should change if they are causing trouble, but if our clients and patients don’t feel different in their own bodies, objective results aren’t meaningful enough. In AiM we are taught to appreciate both: The subjective check-in, and the observation and re-testing of “objective” movement (if assessing movement quality can even be objective… I don’t think it can be, not 100%, given the body’s ability to disguise movement and non-movement as each-other).
In checking in, we were encouraged to change the words we used to describe our experiences. “It hurts” and “it feels tight” were not good enough. Why? They don’t tell us anything useful to work with!
Gary gave me further context later:
The word “pain” gives us nothing. No info. No size of area. Duration of time. Good pain. Bad pain. A stretch pain. A compressive pain. The term is insufficient for understanding what’s going on.
From this we can see the importance of digging a bit deeper into our clients’ experience of their own movement quality. Subjective, but hugely important, for them to learn about themselves and also for us to guide them through their process.
Some more good stuff on the insufficiencies of “pain” and “tightness”:
“Pain is an external description of ‘how I am’” ~GW (’nuff said)
“Pain is (a) bullshit (word)” ~GW (on empowering people to find better ways to describe how movements feel. This is not to invalidate someone’s experience of pain, but to understand that pain can be present for many reasons. There are many more useful words that we could use and encourage our clients to use to describe the experience of movement. “it hurts” on it’s own does not give us enough information. Don’t kill me for this, Gary…)
“Tight is bullshit” ~CS (in response to students who only could find the word “tight” to describe movement. It is an insufficient term, like “it hurts”, because “tight” is an ambiguous feeling, not a quality of movement. It’s an easy answer. Find another word, another quality, and you’ll open up new ways of experiencing your body’s truth in a non-limiting way).
Still going strong on my #Simpsonschallenge. I hope at least 3 of you appreciate this…
Gary and Chris are incredible teachers who inspire me to become better at communicating with my own clients.
They are impeccable with their choice of words. They make sure no one is left behind. They meet each group of students where they’re currently at, and so each course is slightly different in delivery. They don’t try to “blow minds” (although it happens anyway) but wish for us to simply understand.
Their teaching style is to create an experience for the class to discover the material in themselves, knowing that you can’t teach people things, they have to learn it for themselves, when they’re ready. This is rare and refreshing.
Here’s what I mean:
“We don’t want to feed you information you haven’t experienced” ~CS (on why it’s important for us to feel the model in our own bodies as part of the learning process. Or, to quote Gary from the September 2015 course in Toronto “Let’s not just BELIEVE shit, that’s why the world’s a f&@!cking mess.”)
“Movement is in spheres. No axis of rotation. But we have to break it down in three planes to teach it”. ~CS (on discussing the limitations of talking about triplanar movement- It’s something to be felt, witnessed, and understood, not just talked about)
“The noise is in the words, not the action” ~GW (following from above, words make things complicated. Wars are waged over choice of words)
For an anatomy course,very little time was dedicated to actually talking about muscle function. In gait, muscles react to joint action (one of Gary’s rules of movement: Joints act, muscles react). Rather than look at muscles and what they “do” concentrically to move our bodies, we looked first at joint actions to appreciate which muscles must decelerate them to allow them to safely occur, and most importantly, we felt it in our own bodies.
For example, if you put your arms overhead and bend backwards, the abdominal muscles should load up eccentrically (lengthen) to slow the movement into spinal extension before your spine bumps into itself, and you should experience stretch across your abs. Compressive pain with backbending can be related to abs not being able to lengthen under load to safely allow this joint action. Flips the core training paradigm upside down to think this way (and I encourage you to do so!).
To paraphrase Gary:
It’s important to know muscles really, really well so that you can stop thinking in terms of what they do, and start looking at how the body moves.
A few other things that was said about muscles:
“Muscles aren’t designed to pronate the foot” ~GW (They are designed to decelerate pronation. Due to the shape of the calcaneous, gravity pronates our feet for us and getting out from pronation becomes the common challenge).
“Muscles are managers” ~GW (on the role muscles play in the moving body as managers of our center of mass. Muscles essentially manage freedom of movement in the joints, allowing joints to approach their end range before safely returning back to a restful center. Restricted or hypermobile joints will influence how it will be managed by the muscles.)
Gary knows his feet. Just don’t call him the “foot guy” or he’ll flip his shit.
“Fashion will always fuck us up” ~GW (on the foot’s function as a mobile adapter in flip flops, high-heels, and even pointe shoes. He is suggesting fashion will always limit us unless we learn to override and counter the imbalance it inflicts upon us. We can, however, organize ourselves better to enjoy fashion, because life is too short not to!)
“Supporting forefoot varus versus encouraging ‘neutral” ~GW (on what orthotics generally are built to do, versus what movement and wedging can do).
“Create an experience inside the foot.” ~GW (on the purpose of foot mobilizations)
Orthorics vs. “floorthotics”: Creative AiM foot wedging strategies with one of my clients
AiM is a course centered around the motion of every joint in the body in every plane of movement as it should ideally happen at each moment in the gait cycle. So yeah, we talked a bit about gait.
Here are the most memorable gait-related quotes:
“Every condition presents in the gait cycle because they are either stuck in it or can’t get into it” ~GW (on “diagnosis” of forefoot varus, scoliosis, and other “syndromes”. Yes, there is a scoliotic moment in gait, and it’s normal!).
“Everyone is stuck in a moment in time” ~GW (same idea as above, you can get stuck in a particular moment of the gait cycle and it can become problematic. I just like how romantic this sounds)
“Assessing gait will not show you what’s wrong, it will show you what’s missing” ~CS (“what’s missing”… Rather than looking for what IS happening- dysfunction, pain, sloppy movement- we need to be seeing what’s not there so we can give them back that experience)
“In gait, muscles never shorten first” ~GW (as per his second big rule of movement: Muscles must lengthen before they contract)
“If you can’t straighten and internally rotate your knee, you’ll have no ability to supinate.” GW (on the knee’s role in creating a rigid lever in the supinating phases of gait, which sadly, many of us never experience. If you can’t internally rotate the knee, you can’t extend it. Full knee internal rotattion, which looks like a femur rotating externally beyond the external rotation of the tibia. If you can’t IR and extend the knee, you can’t create a rigid lever through toe off, extend the hip, load the hip flexors, and go about running and jumping effortlessly, pain and strain-free. Bridgehampton 2016 was deemed the “knee course” because it seemed like everyone in the room had a knee extension/rotation issue).
ON ASSESSING PEOPLE IN MOVEMENT
AiM provides some useful ideas for assessing our clients and patients, but something I respect about their approach is that they don’t tell us exactly how we should do it (which would infuriate other folks who need to be told what to do, rely on protocol, algorithms, and evidence to take action). The most important part of assessing is to be able to see what’s missing from their bodies and extrapolate how providing a safe experience to give it back could create a desirous change in their system.
What is beautiful is that the tools we already have to assess fit nicely with AiM philosophy if we can see what’s missing from a person’s system. AiM shows us a simple and useful movement exploration to take our people through, but I’ve also used NKT and PRI testing to guide and integrate AiM movements (and improve re-test outcome). Every movement is an assessment. You can use a simple half-kneeling drill, look for “what’s missing”, and re-integrated it with an AiM movement.
Unfortunately, if you’re looking to be told exactly how to do something step by step, and become paralyzed without a strict formula, this might not be the course for you. But if you’re creative and like tinkering with options, I think you’ll appreciate the freedom AiM brings you.
Some ideas to ponder:
“It’s not ‘what’s wrong with them?’, it’s ‘how are they managing their mass?’” ~CS (as per Gary’s rule of movement: Everything revolves around center, and their function will be dictated by how they manage their center of mass around their perceived center).
“It’s important to be able to assess things in isolation, but contextualizing it is what we need to do better” ~CS (on looking at structures of the body in relationship with the rest of it. Sure, we need to know what the hips are doing, but to get the complete picture, it needs to be put into context of what the hips are doing relative to the ribcage, skull, scaps, and the rest of it. If someone comes to see you for help with their hips, for example, the hip assessment can’t be focused only on the hips, but the relationship their hips have with the rest of their bodies. This resonated with me in a huge way, as it is something I am currently struggling with).
“If something appears neutral, but nothing else is, the neutral thing could be the problem!” ~GW (all or nothing: Either everything is neutral, or nothing is)
“You can’t be hypermobile everywhere” ~GW (same thought as above: Everything has to balance out. Even congenitally hypermobile folks have non-moving bits that are the glue holding them together despite the illusion of them being bendy everywhere)
“A fused joint is a new ‘optimal center'” ~GW (as an answer to a question about how joint fusions affect the gait cycle and their implication for training and rehab. A fused joint isn’t “bad”, it just creates a new perceived center for them to work with. Unfortunately, we label fusions and other limiting conditions as just that: Limitations! A simple change in language- “limiting” to “optimal”, can change the relationship people have with fusions, and both patient and practitioner see how to work with their new center, not on it, fight it, or resent it. Getting comfortable with the ‘new normal’ and managing the inevitable compensations).
“If things don’t go right, go left” ~CS (on what to do if your strategy isn’t working. It always comes down to one of two choices. Sounds easy, doesn’t it?)
The actual view from the coffee shop I’m writing this blog post in 🙂
If asked for one single take-away, I don’t think I could find the words (that’s why this blog post is over 3000 words long).
I feel fortunate to have this blog as a medium to share the AiM philosophy, and am looking forward to seeing what come out as I work to revise and create new chapters for Dance Stronger. AiM was hugely influential in the creation of this resource the first time through, and it will certainly become a larger part of it moving forwards.
(PS Dance Stronger is 100% available by donation, so no excuses not to check it out and see what I’m talking about).
If you recall THIS blog post from a few months ago, then you are aware that I’ve been taking a break from “exercise”.
But no, you won’t see me washing myself with a rag on a stick anytime soon #Simpsonschallenge
This break from exercise was to re-evaluate my relationship with it by choosing only to do what felt like “movement”, or “skilled practice”, rather than “working out”.
Well, guess what. I’ve officially broken my vow of abstinence. I confess, I deadlifted last week for the first time in six months.
I’m back in bilateral-extension-land and loving it. My softening calluses have experienced a reawakening, or if you’d rather, a bloody mess all over the kettlebells.
This blog post will serve as a follow up to the “movement vs. exercise” dilemma I was having and, for all 7 of you reading this, I hope it it will provide a new lens through which to view exercise and to explore how movement and exercise are not the same thing. Maybe it will even ignite in you the curiosity to try your own exercise-abstinence experiment. Why?
Movement may be a more useful thing to focus on than exercise. Exercise is something we often use to make up for being sedentary. Movement, on the other hand, when done in sufficient amounts, makes structured exercising kind of superfluous (depending on your goals).
I was very happy to come across something Katy Bowman wrote that echoes my feelings and sees the bigger picture:
Movement, in a natural setting, is incidental to meeting other biological needs. This arrangement between nature and your physiology creates a dynamic and sustainable relationship that is self-regulating.
Now, to answer your first question…
Was I just being lazy?
This was a comment on my Facebook page after I posted the original movement vs. exercise blog post:
“I’m at a similar place and was questioning if it is just laziness…”
I struggled with this belief, too; with feeling lazy and like I should be doing more. Where did we learn this belief that choosing not to exercise immediately makes someone lazy and insufficient?
Anything done deliberately is not laziness.
A deliberate practice, even one of non-doing, is the opposite of being lazy. Laziness as a concept, in my mind, doesn’t exist. Laziness is an excuse we use in avoidance of something. So no, if you’re worried that taking a deliberate break from training or exercise makes you lazy, it does not.
There is never enough time to do all the nothing.
Taking a break from exercise doesn’t mean I spent six months sitting on the couch eating Tim Bits all day. One, because I don’t own a couch. And two, as a proper Canadian, I used to have an addiction to Tim Bits. In third year university I lived across the street from a Tim Horton’s and regularly enjoyed a 20-pack-for-dinner kinda life style.
Never. Going. Back.
Taking a break from exercise didn’t mean becoming sedentary, but temporarily stepping away from ways of training that no longer felt spontaneous, useful, and, for lack of better word “good” in my body. A sort of “elimination diet” for movement.
Primarily, I removed deadlifts, squats,
my sorry attempt at chin-ups, and any other exercises that didn’t feel like “movement”, as well as other exercises that I found myself doing for the sole reason that I felt guilty if I didn’t do them, because they had become too habitual, our out of a compulsion just to sweat.
So, from November 2015 (after that dang Anatomy in Motion course) up until a few weeks ago, the main forms of movement I performed were:
- Pistol squats
- Turkish-get ups
- Walking a crap load
- Anatomy in Motion stuff
- Rolling around on the floor
As you can see, this still left me with a plenty of options. And yes, I know, push-ups, TGUs, and pistol squats are”exercises”, but that doesn’t mean I was exercisING.
My criteria: If it felt like a movement skill I could do with a mindset of “practice”, then it stayed in my life. Intention was key, but I’ll talk a bit more about that further along in this post.
And then, an existential crisis…
Whenever we examine movement we are also examining behaviour.
I’ll admit, I had a small identity crisis a few months ago while I was in a dressing room. I caught glimpse of my back and, if you know me, you know I have extensor tone for days. But what I saw in the mirror was something different. I had changed: My muscle tone was way down.
My mild existential crisis: “Who am I without my extensor tone??” was followed by the immediate urge to do kettle-bell swings and deadlifts. If I’m being completely honest, I did some swings later that day. It was like a junk food binge, seeking comfort and instant gratification.
Interesting isn’t it? How attached we can become to our physical identity even if it is no longer serving us.
We do this as dancers all the time. We’re proud of how our physiology reveals our identity as a dancer.
We walk turned out. We pop our hips and backs constantly. Stand on one foot whenever possible. Sit around in the splits. Talk about how we are sore all the time. We even brag about how gross our feet are. It’s weird, but we want everyone to know these things about us because they have become a part of who we are, and they reveal that we are dancers.
This is not unique to dancers. It happens in fitness, in other sports, and many other industries.
My kettle bell swing compulsion was an important reminder that change is scary because letting go of habits that have become part of our identity feels a bit like losing a piece of ourselves, stepping into the unknown, and losing control of our lives.
Don’t know about you, but I like being in control.
A relationship based on trust
My experiment has come to a natural close which feels like a firm desire to never “just exercise” again regardless of what exercises I choose to do. It feels like confidence in the relationship that I have with my body- A relationship rooted in honesty and trust. When my body speaks to me, I listen, like in any good relationship.
For example, today I got hit by a taxi on my bike as I was riding to work (Beck Taxi, license plate number BPED450, fyi).
I’m totally fine, don’t worry, Mom.
But my poor right handle bar will never be the same… 🙁
I think I slid across the hood a little, got thrown off my bike, and somehow landed on my hands, completely calm and unharmed. In my mind I knew what I needed to do to land safely, and I did, trusting that my body had the survival strategies. I left the scene with only a small scratch on my knee despite landing hard on my hands (and head… I was wearing a helmet fortunately, or it would have been a different story).
I think the taxi got the worst of the damage as I was able to use it to break my fall somewhat.
The driver, by the way, was pretty inconsiderate and angry at me. Without even asking if I was ok says, “You should have slowed down!”, and then proceeded to check his car’s damage. What is our world coming to if we value being “right” and our material possessions over the well-being of fellow human beings!
This could have been much more serious, and in part I think I got out of this situation totally unscathed because of the honest, trust-based relationship I was training myself to have with my body. Because I spend time every day being present with my body and its natural ways of moving, not just punishing it three times a week with intense exercise and forceful controlled motions. Oh, and wearing a helmet saved my life. Always wear a helmet, guys!
Never has the motto “train for life” meant more to me.
My mantra, courtesy of Screaming Monkey apparel. Get this shirt here: www.screaming-monkey.com
What 6 months exercise-free has taught me
The metta lesson: Before movement, there was intention for movement, and this is what I have come to appreciate most.
My wonderful friend, massage therapy and yoga genius, Wensy Wong and I had this exact conversation last week in the context of causes of injury in yoga, both of us having sustained yoga injuries for the same underlying reason: Our misguided intention.
Injuries don’t happen because of poor movement mechanics, although that does play a large role. And it’s not about the teacher’s skills and (poor) class design, although that plays a role too. Underlying these external risk factors what really matters is the individual’s intention.
Intention for movement happens in the brain, in the motor cortex, our center for movement intention, will, and skill.
There are physical circuits that exist in our brains that allow us to move and to override stretch and golgi tendon organ reflexes. And when our intention is “I must do this exercise as hard as I can, and it must look good, and I have to do it better than X”, we override circuits that keep our experience honest.
Dishonesty leads to injury, and it happens in our brains before it happens in our bodies.
Physical injuries start in the brain.
It’s your intention. Your ability to listen honestly to what your body is saying and being willing to do things in a less show-offy kind of way. To focus on the movement in a deeper sense, perhaps as if it were a skill to practice, not an merely exercise to make you sweat, punish yourself for eating “bad” food, or to show off.
Moving honestly: What I wish for all humanity to experience.
Here are some of the other lessons I have learned from taking 6 months off of exercise:
- You can stop exercising for 6 months and not worry about gaining weight.
- Guilt is not a useful motivator for training, but knowing your body and mind will feel great afterwards IS.
- Our physical identity drives us to train in particular ways that feel familiar, and becoming unattached to this comforting familiarity is a practice of “movement honesty”: Moving without ego. Moving for a greater purpose than to fulfill an aesthetic.
- You can get “exercise” as a secondary result of performing a movement practice, but not all exercise qualifies as movement practice (and I prefer the former).
- I miss deadlifting.
- Shifting your intention for moving allows movement forms that once caused pain to become healing (ballet, yoga, etc)
- When something is difficult for us to do or change about our movement practice, it almost always shows up somewhere else in our lives, at some level (honesty, patience, listening…).
And with these important lessons in mind, I’ve made a triumphant return to the gym floor.
And guess what, I’m doing it Hardstyle.
Kettlebells keep me honest. The beauty of a self-limiting exercise like the TGU: You can’t fake holding 20kg of iron over your face.
Yes, I feel honest enough to start learning the StrongFirst system with the help of my amazing friend and coach, Paul Hynes. Each session is a lesson in honesty, patience, and listening. This training system should really be called “ZenFirst”, because I’m learning it’s impossible to produce force without the ability to first wait with a quiet mind.
I’m not training for the SFG certification, although if it takes me there, I’m open to it. Mostly, I’m excited to be training a new skill, and happy to be working with a coach who appreciates my need for this to be about practice not exercise.
Getting back to training things like swings, deadlifts, and chin-ups feels great, and I am reminded that being strong is something that is important to me, and why I began doing it in the first place, years ago, and how it helped my dancing.
So I will close by saying three things:
- Be mindful of whether your movement/exercise routine is becoming a part of your identity, and if you are ok with that.
- Re-evaluate frequently what your intention for movement truly is and whether it serves you.
- Move honestly. Always. As in movement, so too in life.
Reclaiming the Frontal Plane for Dummies (for Dancers)
I’d first like to take the time to congratulate myself on actually following through on writing part two, because no one’s going to give me a high five for that but me. Go me! #SelfAccountability.
To recap part one (<– read it now before you continue if you haven’t already! I can wait…):
Dancers rarely work on fundamental movement quality in their training, and tend to develop a movement vocabulary that, while rich in technical skill, has major cracks in its foundation, denying them several important ranges of natural human motion.
To restate what I said in part one:
[Dancers] are trained to move in beautiful, yet unnatural ways, often dependent on pathology to succeed, but without a base of fitness, fundamental movement, and general physical preparedness to support them.
Being flexible has nothing to do with it. You can’t stretch movement quality into your system, and as we will discuss today, stretching can sometimes make things even messier.
Today, part two, we are going to explore one specific part of this “dance like a human” thing that gets a bit messy. Ready?
Warning: This post is long, but I tried to make it easier to read by including lots of fun images and subtitles in the formatting. Grab some coffee, ’cause we’re going deep.
Whether You Like it or Not, SHIFT Happens
Courtesy of Gary Ward. Whether you like it or not… Shift. Happens.
I’d like to introduce you to pelvis shift. A little appreciated movement essential for dance, gait, and, if you want to get philosophical (maybe another time), for life.
Shift refers to moving laterally through space, like a Krispy Kreme donut going smoothly down a flat conveyer belt. Imagine your pelvis is that Krispy Kreme, sliding along, not a care in the world.
Each time you take a step, at the same moment you heel strike, your pelvis must make this smooth shift from one foot to the other (as pictured in Gary Ward’s lovely sketch—>).
Gary, in his Anatomy in Motion course calls this the “leap of faith” because it’s the only time in the gait cycle that your center of mass must breach your base of support, and you have to trust that your swinging leg will be there to catch you on heel strike so that you don’t fall on your face.
This side to side shift of the pelvis is an extremely important movement in the frontal plane that gets
really effed up a little lost for most dancers. Shift is an important part of many aspects of dance technique (as we’ll discuss a little further down), but ironically, dance technique and training can mess up our ability to shift.
Alas, whether you like it or not, shift happens.
If it didn’t, you wouldn’t be able to walk, let alone dance. So when you lose the ability to perform pelvis shift, your amazing body finds other ways to make it happen. Is it going to be the most ideal, most effortless, safest way? Nope.
Some people call this “compensation”. I call it being a “skilled movement strategist”. Many of us dancers are a little too skilled in this domain…
Let’s first get clear on what frontal plane movement is and where pelvis shift fits in.
Frontal Plane Movement 101
Our bodies move in 3 main planes:
Sagittal plane: Front and back movement. The plane of motion for a somersault.
Frontal plane: Side to side movement. Plane of movement for a cartwheel.
Transverse plane: Rotational movement. Plane of movement for a pirouette.
Our bodies are always moving in all three planes at once. Some muscles have different roles in all three planes in one motion. One muscle might be shortening in the frontal plane, but lengthening in the transverse plane during the same movement.
Our bodies are cool like that.
When we lose the ability to perform a movement in one plane, we can make up for it by moving more in a different plane, or by moving a different joint more in the same plane(we’ll go through a dance specific example of this a little further down).
Just for today, let’s keep this simple and stick to the hips and pelvis, although it’s good to know that nearly every joint and muscle in your body, but not all, has a role in frontal plane movement (the knee, for example, does not do much in the frontal plane, because that would suck).
Your turn to think
Stand up and try to figure this one out:
What are the possible movements for the pelvis and hips in the frontal plane?
Go ahead, take your time, stand up and play around with side to side movement. What do you feel happening? I’m looking for 4 main movements. Here’s a nice picture to look at while you think and move:
Well? What did you come up with?
Hopefully you got to these 4 main movements (one of which we already named):
- Pelvis shift
- Pelvis hike
- Hip adduction
- Hip abduction
If you had trouble naming or feeling these, either you need an anatomy lesson, or your body doesn’t do them well. When we have trouble accessing joint actions, we often will also struggle to describe them with words and conceptualize them. That’s because all thought is embodied. But that’s a tangent I won’t go down today.
These are motions your body must be able to do in frontal plane. In life. In dance. And if one is messy, they all get messy.
This lady is in a position of right pelvis shift, right hip hike, right hip abduction, and left hip adduction.
Why do dancers easily lose frontal plane competency?
- Over stretching, and the need to be very flexible (often to the point of pathology)
- Rushing technique progression, or poor instruction on proper technique
- Aerobic fatigue causing sloppiness and compensation
- Technical demands of the specific dance style: Turn-out, need for excessive amounts of hip abduction or hiking and spinal extension.
- High resting muscle tonus (sympathetic nervous system dominance)
- Poor breathing mechanics (contributing to above sympathetic dominance)
- Arabesque. I won’t get into it today, but arabesque is like an open chain, patho-shift. If you want me to explain that one, shoot me an email and we’ll talk.
The above aren’t bad, they are a reality of dance training. It is important to understand that they will likely develop into”creative movement strategies” that may not be ideal long term, and it would be wise to have supplemental strategies to keep these challenges in check.
Do you even shift?
Do you shift, bro?
From a human motion perspective, we can assess shiftability a few different ways. Let’s look at some of my faves:
1) Standing closed chain pelvis range of motion exploration, AiM style.
This is your chance to experience triplanar movement at your hips and pelvis. Can you shift? What else is limited? And what are you good at? Take a few minutes to go through this with me. Makes for useful outcome measures.
Note, you can also take this idea and explore any joint or structure in your body, because shift isn’t only a pelvic event.
2) Adduction drop test, PRI style.
This is important: If you can’t adduct your hip passively, it is doubtful you can do it standing up. Get a PRI trained person to check you out. If you are lucky, you live close to Michael Mullin or Sarah Petrich, who work with dancers and are PRI level badass.
muscle pattern testing, NKT style
While I’m sure there are some muscle testing haters reading this, I argue that NKT done well looks for patterns, not muscle strength, and is not yo mama’s MMT.
Some common patterns in non-shifters with NKT testing are:
- Adductor compensating for opposite adductor and/or QL
- Adductor compensating for opposite side external oblique, or same side internal oblique
- Diaphragm compensating for TVA (breath holding pattern keeping them in spinal extension)
- Crazy pelvis ligament stuff inhibiting hamstrings, adductors, hip flexors, quads, etc.
- Jaw compensating for anything in the lateral sub-system (QL, adductors, TFL, glute med).
- Neck compensating for obliques
Lots of ways to get the job done. It’s cool to see these patterns show up in muscle testing and movement screening, and then re-integrated into better quality movement through training.
4) Gait observation, ninja style.
Gait observation is highly subjective, and it’s something that I am working on getting
better at least somewhat decent at. Give me 10 years and ask me how it’s going…
That said, if you take a look at this lovely dancer lady walking, what you should notice is whether or not her pelvis is going from left to right at the appropriate time: As her back heel starts to lift off the floor. Is it??
Not so much…
How Many Ways Can You Cheat Frontal Plane?
So if you can’t shift well, how are you even walking?
As a self-proclaimed expert at butchering frontal plane hip and pelvis movement, you can trust that this info is direct from the source: Chief Creative Movement Strategist Volkmar (CCMS). Esquire.
CCMS Volkmar: Just making an abomination of the frontal plane. But at least I’m respecting my ligaments. Mostly.
Remember, when a joint can’t move in one plane, something else will try to do it in another.
Here’s an example that may resonate with you. Let’s say you can’t shift your pelvis to the right very well, but you need to get on your right leg (right shift) to tendu side with your left leg. What are your options?
The most common strategy will often be to hike the hip on left side, which the lady in the image above is doing (hike and shift both being frontal plane hip movements). In pure shift, the hips stay level.
You could also get the job done in two other planes of movement: Extend your spine (sagittal) and rotate your pelvis to the right (transverse), which helps you accomplish the same weight transfer, but with more expended energy and torque.
Or maybe you choose to shift excessively from joints other than your pelvis. For example maybe shift your ribs or your skull to the right more excessively to accomplish a similar weight transfer.
Sneaky. And then you wonder why you can’t get rid of that upper body tension. Maybe if your skull wasn’t busy trying to be a pelvis…
One final note on frontal plane strategies
This blog post is primarily geared towards ballet and contemporary technique, but I also used to salsa dance, and have worked with a few salsa dancers.
What’s interesting about this dance style is that they do what I call a “reverse shift”: When they take a step, the pelvis shifts the opposite way. Not to mention it’s an anterior tilt dominant dance style. Latin dancers don’t shift well, but they hike like champions (same-plane shift strategy).
Where does shift show up in dance technique?
“But Monika, what does this have to do with helping me dance better?”.
I’m getting to that. Keep in mind that losing the ability to perform any range of motion is never ideal. Maybe you need to read part 1 again?
The ability to shift is actually a majorly huge deal in dance. It wasn’t until after I learned how to shift that magic really started happening in ballet class, I could stop clenching my neck and jaw, my turnout became easier to access, and I could balance in adage like a boss.
Dance is pure shift.
Chassé pas de bourré is shift.
Start thinking less in terms of “pelvic stability”, words which, while important, don’t frame the concept properly. While stability implies non-movement, shift implies allowing lateral movement.
Were does shift show up in dance? Everywhere. If you need to be on one leg or change directions, you need shift. What doesn’t require shift? is a better question.
Unadulterated pelvis shift is what allows dancers to change directions and transfer their weight quickly and smoothly without tensing anything in their upper bodies, holding their breath, or creating excess torque (at the lower back, hips, neck, or jaw, for example).
If you can’t shift, you can’t have single leg stability because it’s impossible to get your body’s mass over one leg without first shifting your pelvis. Try it.
Non-shifters are barre-grippers.
Even keeping a “neutral” pelvis requires shift, because if you can’t let your pelvis shift, you’ll have to cheat it in another plane or from another joint (as we already discussed). In reality, a pelvis that shifts right and left well is a pelvis that can be neutral when it needs to, and leave neutral when it needs to.
Neutral only being a phase that lasts for an instant between 0.6-0.8 seconds.
Neutrality = having movement options.
A pelvis that shifts has options.
A pelvis that shifts lets you reduce tension and torque from other parts of your body and makes dance more effortless.
What muscles help you shift?
Short answer: Don’t worry about it.
A lot of dancers screw themselves over by becoming so focused on what muscles should be working that they tense up, get in their heads too much, and forget to feel what’s happening.
Instead of asking, “Am I doin’ it right?”, ask “Am I feelin’ it right?”. Daft Punk knows what’s up.
“And everybody will be dancing…”
Let’s think in terms of two of Gary Ward’s rules of movement:
Joints act, muscles react: Shift happens, and muscles react to it. Muscles don’t make you shift, you shift.
Muscles must lengthen before they contract: In order to shift, something has to lengthen as a reaction to your pelvis’ lateral movement in order to decelerate it (slow it down), and then contract to get you back to center, like a sling shot first pulling back to shoot a stone.
So what is reacting to the pelvis shifting? What has to lengthen and load eccentrically in order to allow the pelvis to move laterally and return back to center?
Wait for it.
It’s your dance teacher’s favourite muscle to tell you to strengthen…
Ah, yes… your friends the adductors.
But also the other members of the lateral sub-system that react to lateral movement:
Glute med and the adductors have a larger role in shift, as we are discussing it today.
But let’s be clear about one thing: Inner thigh leg raises will do nothing for you if you can’t eccentrically load your adductors, or passively adduct your hip joints, which allow shift to happen in your body.
Clams are also somewhat of a waste of time.
Why are my adductors so tight?
Dancers’ adductors are often locked long (from overstretching), so they lose the ability to eccentrically load, or, because they are already on load all the time, they tighten up to protect themselves from strain. And you wonder why stretching your adductors doesn’t relieve the tightness…
Get up on your feet and shift your pelvis over to the right. you should be aware that your left adductor is lengthening, hence, decelerating (eccentric loading) the journey the pelvis makes from left leg to right leg. This happens with every step you take.
Shift is less about clenching the same side inner thigh to pull you over, or pushing with the opposite hip abductors, and more about allowing joint action through decelerative muscle reaction.
Sounds like less work, doesn’t it? You bet.
And now you can see how it can be problematic for dancers who have overstretched their adductors and pelvis ligaments to the point of pathology. You can’t shoot a stone very far with a stretched out elastic band.
Reclaiming shift: Monika’s Story
I know what you’re thinking, “Not another story, Monika. Get to the dang point!”. But this one is good, I promise. And relevant, too.
So, let me tell you about my journey reclaiming shift (still a work in progress, by the way), and I’ll try to keep it concise. You can also read THIS.
I was first introduced to shift by Dr. Brock Easter, my go-to body healing dude in Toronto.
I remember him telling me once, “When I start working with a dancer, I go straight to assessing the adductors, and it’s almost always the primary dysfunction.”
Words of wisdom from Dr. Brock: If its a dancer, go for the groin. Did I get that right? 😉
Anyway, I went to see Brock specifically to learn about Anatomy in Motion. He assessed me and put me in shift phase. In this AiM movement, the key points are that the pelvis should shift across the midline, and you should feel the adductors loading eccentrically (kind of a stretchy/worky feeling) on the leg you’re shifting away from as it abducts and externally rotates.
I didn’t feel shi(f)t.
And I continued to feel nothing for almost a year, though I practiced diligently every day. My body felt better for sure (back pain, hamstring pain, being things I was working forward from), but still no adductor function.
And then I had a pelvic floor intervention.
Not like that….
It was February 2015 at Neurokinetic Therapy level 2 in Toronto, and I was the demo body for pelvic floor testing and correction. And a good one, at that.
Dr. Kathy Dooley found that my anterior pelvic floor was facilitated bilaterally. Probably because I was a breath holder, and used to be a chronic pee-holder for many years. I was good at it. Like, really good. Too good.
Dooley did an NKT correction, showed me how to anti-kegel (kegels aren’t the answer to all life’s problems, guys), and I felt my abs work in crazy new ways. I felt pretty good afterwards.
Then, because it had become a habit whenever I was standing around doing nothing to practice shift phase, I got up and tried it out, and HOLY CRAP. Hello adductors.
Why did this happen?
This might not be the complete picture, but to the best of my limited understanding, to be able to access pelvis shift in frontal plane, the pelvis needs to be in a posterior tilt in the sagittal plane, and the pelvic floor needs to be able to stretch to allow the lateral movement. In February 2015, I couldn’t posterior tilt if I used max effort, and I couldn’t let go of my pelvic floor. Getting my pelvic floor to chill out allowed me to access abdominals and finally get into a post tilt. Boom. Shift happened (#).
Too, the obturator nerve is responsible for motor innervation of the adductor muscles, and can become entrapped in the obturator canal, for which the obturator internus facscia creates a medial wall.
Why does that matter?
As Dooley explained to me later:
You stretch pelvic floor, you allow shift with a stretch of OI fascia, taking tension off obturator nerve so it can innervate adductors.
Obturator nerve entrapment is also known to be related to adductor strain. Hey, I’ve had a few of those!
All that to say, just because my adductors weren’t working the way I would have liked, don’t go blaming my adductors! Concentric adductor exercise wasn’t the solution I needed.
Remember, joints act, muscles react. When I finally was able to get my body in a decent position, and maintain it as I shifted, I felt adductors come alive in a meaningful way for the gait cycle.
So on that note, I want to leave you with some ideas for how to optimize your ability to let shift happen by getting joints to move into positions that allow muscles to react in more useful ways.
Let’s get shifty
To accomplish a proper pelvis shift, you need these three big things:
1) Ability to exhale fully and depress ribcage (ZOA)
2) Posterior pelvic tilt
3) Lumbar flexion
If you can achieve these movements but still struggle to accomplish shift, there’s something else going on. Or you might need some guidance/therapy/time, like I did.
This past January and February I did free movement screens with some Ryerson dancers, and not one of them could posterior tilt past neutral. Posterior pelvic tilt should not be a max effort event.
You can get all three of the above movements at the same time with these two exercises (which you have seen in many, many blog posts before because they are #DTPfaves).
1) Cogs (emphasis on flexion/exhalation phase)
2) 90/90 Hip Lift
Do these two activities, and go back to check your pelvis range of motion. Is anything different? Can you shift more easily? Tuck more easily? Hike more easily?
If you’ve achieved requisite range of motion into flexion/posterior tilt/ZOA, you may now have opened a window of opportunity to reclaim some frontal plane shift. So let’s do that now.
The moment you’ve all been waiting for.
Worth noting that every joint in the body plays a role in shift. You can’t see my feet in this video, but they are kind of a big deal. Also, should have mentioned in this video that your back knee needs to stay straight.
As mentioned in the video, for a successful shift, you should feel adductors on back leg loading. If you don’t, it’s not shift. It’s a CCMS Volkmar special.
Please note that this movement is best learned from someone who’s been trained in AiM, and you can find such a person HERE.
This next exercise allows you to apply shift to a dance-specific situation in it’s most fundamental form: Transferring from first position to coupé and into tendus front and side.
This one kills me. And I like it.
I stole this exercise from my favourite ballet teacher, Christine Wright (who you can find teaching at the National Ballet School in Toronto, Monday-Friday from 10am-12pm. Another #DTPfave).
If you are doing this one well, your hips should stay level (not hike) as you shift onto one leg. If you are able to do this, you may feel some burny/stretchy/eccentric load feels at the front of the hip you’re standing on, indicating that you’re “on your leg”, or, not compressing the hip or going into an anterior tilt/hike on that side.
Remember the wise words of Daft Punk: You’re doin’ it right if you’re feelin’ it right.
The other side of your butt should not leave the wall as you shift (that’s a transverse plane violation), and you should be able to maintain 3 points of contact with the back of your body on the wall: Back of skull, ribcage, and pelvis.
Breathe, 2, 3, 4. It ain’t easy.
Alright. That was a lot… Just imagine how I felt editing this monstrous thing.
I hope you’ll experiment with shift, reclaiming it back, and maintaining it as a regular strategy to unwind from the duress of dance training and enhance your performance abilities.
In part 3 of Dance Like a Human, we will be discussing another key human motion to reclaim for better performance… But I’m not saying what it is! Stay tuned.