Tell me if these corrections sound familiar:
“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.
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
- Transverse abdominis (TVA)
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:
- Internal and external obliques
- Rectus abdominis
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.
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…
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
To do that awesome leap, Misty needs to LENGTHEN her abs, and LEAVE NEUTRAL.
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.
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.
Grab My Leg Baby Please. I fondly recall this mnemonic with which I first was taught the names and attachments (distal to proximal) of the much underrated adductor group.
Ah, the adductors.
The adductor group. Gracilis (grab) attaching most distal (farthest from the head), and pectineous (please) most promixal (closest to the head).
More recently at NeuroKinetic Therapy (NKT) seminar, we were taught a mnemonic that is somehow even more badass, to remember the muscle tests for the individual adductors: Please baby love my groin. (G for gracillis, with the foot pointing in towards the groin. So awesome).
Anatomy is sexy.
But sexy mnemonics aside, this article is all about the important function of the adductors for dancers.
Much like you’d expect, the primary action of this group of muscles is to adduct the leg (bring it towards the center of the body). They also, depending on the context you’re moving in, rotate the leg in and help flex and extend the hip.
And not only do they create movement, but help to stabilize the leg, hips and pelvis while other prime movers are working dynamically (think your supporting leg during a balance). In this sense, the adductors could considered a “core stabilizer”. The adductor magnus has been referenced by The Postural Restoration Institute (PRI) as being the most important internal rotator muscle to hold your pelvis and hips together.
From my PRI notes: Adductor magnus is suuuper important for alignment
This context dependent variability of function is why that seated adductor machine (where you sit and squeeze your thighs together) doesn’t quite cut it if you’re trying to train the adductors for performance, injury rehab, or even for that mysterious goal of “toning”.
This is unintentionally becoming the sexiest article I’ve ever written…
For dancers, proper adductor function is a HUGE deal for lumbo-pelvic-femoral stability. Weak, over-stretched adductors can lead to loss of joint range of motion, postural and movement dysfunction, and eventually even pain and injury. And I am a living example of this (but more on that later).
Why do dancers tend to have dysfunction in the adductor group?
In dance we are encouraged to stretch more often, and more intensely for longer durations at the wrong times. One thing you can do right now to improve your adductor situation, is to no sit in the splits and stretch them before class. PLEASE STOP DOING THAT. Stretching a muscle is a method of downregulating it. Do you think it’s a good idea to weaken an important stabilizing muscle prior to using it? Noooope.
The emphasis of turnout in many styles of dance also has it’s toll, as we tend to work in extreme ranges of hip external rotation, with little emphasis on maintaining internal rotation (those adductors), which causes us to lose range of motion into adduction- The leg becomes unable to cross the center line of the body without compensation in the pelvis.
It’s never good to lose a range of motion, at any joint, much like losing the ability to posteriorally tilt the pelvis can wreak havoc on the SI joint and lower back.
Bear with me now while I talk about myself for a bit. Because I can.
Recently I had the amazing opportunity to get assessed using 3D motion capture analysis at The Performance Lab here in Toronto. It’s the same technology they use to make graphics for video games. Very cool stuff.
Just call me MoCap Monika…
Yes I know. I make motion capture technology look good ;0
3D motion capture analysis is super helpful for anyone who wants to learn more about how they move, but especially for dancers, who are the masters of sneaky movement compensations that slip past the untrained eye.
I have a fun history of multiple back injuries, hamstring strain, hip pain, knee pain and neck strains, and am currently experiencing right-sided almost-every-joint pain. I was ecstatic to be finally getting a comprehensive view that could show me WHY things were feeling so nasty. What compensatory movements could be contributing to my pain?
While I won’t go into ALL the details, the biggest take-away for me was that my right pelvis moves excessively to compensate for the fact that I have very poor motor control over, wait for it, the adductors and internal rotators.
Further muscle testing with a friend and fellow NKT practitioner revealed that my adductor magnus is poop. Good times.
Because blame is fun and useful, I will blame years of forcing turnout and sitting in the splits cold before class. Also, big round of applause for my huge ego, for telling me it was a good idea to fling my body into larger ranges of motion than I had control over. My ligaments all hate me. I’m also really glad I didn’t ever work on core strength while I was a dancer, because then I might have had a brilliantly successful dance career, and wouldn’t be writing this today.
Over the years it seems I have down-regulated the crap out of my adductor group. Magnus in particular. And if you dance (or are hypermobile, do gymnastics, yoga, or anything else requiring you to be flexible), it’s quite possible that you have too.
How do you know if you need to develop some adductor strength?
- You walk and stand toed-out.
- It takes effort, or feels unstable to stand with your feet touching in parallel (think mountain pose, for the yogis)
- You can do the splits/over-splits like it’s nuttin’.
- Your groin feels “tight”, like you need to stretch a lot (although this is probably due to protective muscle tone, because of over-stretched hip ligaments…)
- When you lie on your back with your legs straight your feet flop out, and it’s serious effort to turn your toes parallel, up to the ceiling.
- You’re more comfortable sitting with your legs open, or cross-legged than knees together (ladylike)
- You have poop for hip internal rotation ROM and strength, or are very turned-out.
- You have knee, groin or hip pain, or even lower back pain.
If most or some of the above apply to you, then maybe you should learn to activate those adductors. Your performance will improve, your stability will improve, and you’ll definitely reduce your risk of injury.
Over-time, if you continue to dance and live without adductors, there could be some unpleasant risks associated in the form of:
Over-stretched ligaments. In particular, the pubofemoral ligament which should, if intact, prevent your leg from lifting past your face. And remember, when a ligament becomes stretched, it will never contract again. If that ligament isn’t holding you together, what is? Well, it should be your muscles. Enter the adductors…
Chronic displacement of femur in acetabulum. The demands of dance to turnout the hip, lift the leg into large ranges of motion, and the minimal emphasis on training core stability in many large classes can cause the head of the femur to shift outwards and upwards in the socket. This can cause pain and pinching and awful grinding, which could contribute to hip impingement, labrum tearing and joint degeneration, as well worsening of the already poor motor control and joint positioning.
I would love to give you some strategies to help with this adductor situation, but to be quite honest, I’m still trying to figure out the most optimal plan for restoring muscle synergy. I’ve been experimenting with some simple activation drills before my usual strength training sessions (and have been training more single leg exercises if I can do them pain-free), and have noticed, anecdotally, that almost all yoga poses now feel easier in class. So I’ve been activating my adductors daily. Seems logical, right?
My favourite so far, and the simplest, is the PRI 90/90 hip lift. On each exhalation, squeeze the living crap out of the foam roller/towel/whatever implement.
I will try to keep you updated on my progress restoring adductors to good function. If you have any helpful strategies that have worked for you or your clients, please let me know so that I can try them out.
PLEASE NOTE: This article isn’t for inactive, inflexible people. That population will have different adductor issues not covered here…
I get at least a few emails a month asking how to improve turnout. It’s kind of a big deal. Especially if you do ballet.
I know that not all readers of this blog are ballet/contemporary dancers, but every dance form relies on turnout to a certain extent.
I’ve already written a rather lengthy article about turnout HERE, so I recommend you read that too when you’re done with this one. But unlike my first turnout article, what I have to say today has a different tone.
Disclaimer- This will not be a “how to” guide for increasing turnout. I’m not going to give you exercises and stretches that will help your turnout, nor will I claim that it’s even possible to increase your turnout beyond a certain extent.
So, umm, what does that leave to talk about? Attitude.
Not that kind of attitude… Bad joke. I know.
Rather, after having read this, I want you to have a full understanding of why turnout is so hard to change, and why you should focus instead on having a more realistic attitude about your turnout capabilities. And maybe I’ll throw in a few fun anatomy words. Like gastrocnemius. By far the best muscle name of all time.
Ok let’s get started.
What is turnout?
First, I want you to remember that turnout is not the same things as hip external rotation. Turnout is the sum of rotation that occurs at the hip, knee and ankle. Obviously it’s safer to get the majority of your turnout range of motion from the hip, because it’s the most mobile of the three joints, and was designed to rotate in it’s socket.
The tibia can rotate internally and externally, with the range of motion varying from 16 to 60 degrees between individuals.
The foot, too, has a certain degree of external rotation, and it also glides, or tilts side to side into pronation and supination (though it’s a lot more complex that that, in real life), To get more turnout we often see dancers who roll in the foot (pronate). This is most commonly seen in 5th position with the feet. Is not good. Encourage dancers to use a more neutral foot alignment.
Relax. You are not Svetlana.
Many dancers, dance teachers and parents, don’t understand that not everyone is able to get to 90 degrees of “perfect” turnout. Or even 80, or 50 degrees.
Everyone’s body is different. We all have unique variations. I definitely don’t have perfect turnout, and it was actually a relief when I learned that there wasn’t much I could do about it.
In anatomy class, my first year at Ryerson, is when I learned for the first time from our prof that were anatomical factors affecting turnout that we have no control over. It really took the pressure off, after having teachers tell me my whole life that I needed better turnout. This new understanding of my body was a relief, and so I encourage dance teachers to let their students know too, so they don’t stress themselves out.
We can’t all have turnout like Svetlana, nor should we. What a boring world that would be.
The main problems with this whole “I need more turnout” thing:
- If bone is hitting bone, you can’t turnout farther than that. Get over it. Trying to grind bone against bone also feels really awful. Don’t make your labrum hate you (how’s that for a fun anatomy word?)
- For you young, aspiring professional ballerinas (and men too)- if you are anteverted (click the link to read more about that), then it probably wasn’t meant to be. 90 degree turnout won’t be possible for you. Get over it. You can still dance, just maybe not professional ballet (which isn’t as glamorous as you might think).
- Forcing your turnout past it’s natural point in dance class won’t help to improve it. You’ll probably just screw up your knees and have to stop dancing. It also doesn’t look very nice. But that’s subjective…
- You know that “clam” exercise that you do to strengthen your “turnout muscles”? They’re probably not doing anything. Your hip external rotators are likely to be chronically tight and even causing pelvic dysfunction that should be addressed before you try to develop more strength in them.
- Don’t forget about the internal rotators- The loss of hip internal rotation is indicative of potential pelvic dysfunction which could lead to injury and stability issues, and should be addressed in a training program (more on that later on in this post though…)
I’ve also noticed some interesting things in dancer hips that are good to know about before you start trying to get more turnout (bear in mind I work mostly with university level dancers who train primarily in ballet, modern and jazz).
1) Overall loss of internal rotation range of motion in both hips. In regular populations, loss of internal rotation is associated with low back pain, and SI joint dysfunction… Hmm. Internal rotation is actually important. Read more about that HERE on Mike Reinhold’s site. Seriously. It’s a good read with some interesting case studies correlating loss of hip rotation (on one and/or both sides) with low back pain and SI joint dysfunction.
2) More hip external rotation on the RIGHT, and subsequently, more hip internal rotation on the LEFT. I’ve even seen the opposite, which seems to be related to what age the dancer started their studies. Any imbalance side to side can be a risk factor for injury, so maybe you should try to sort that out before trying to add more external rotation.
3) Inability to actively achieve their passive range of motion in hip rotation. Meaning that if I took your leg and manually moved you to your end range of motion in external rotation, and then asked you to try to get to the same place using your own strength, it probably wouldn’t add up to the same amount. In theory, you should be able to get the same active and passive ROM, so maybe you should work on that before trying to get more turnout.
4) Inhibition of the abdominals and glutes. This means they don’t work as hard as they need to, causing other muscles (like the hip external rotators) to compensate to stabilize and align your body. This makes getting more turnout hard, and even risky.
The good news is that those 4 things are mostly trainable, meaning you can improve them with training. Yay!
But your hips don’t lie. And more importantly, your bones don’t lie.
You can’t change your bones
I won’t go into excruciating detail, because I’ve already done that in another article, but things like angle of femoral anteversion, orientation of the hip socket, width and length of femoral shaft, and anterior pelvic ligament laxity will affect how much turnout you can get. And there’s no way to train these things.
For example, I just assessed a dancer who looks a little anteverted. I can’t claim that for sure without an expert second opinion, but you can sort of see it through palpation. Anteversion means the head of her femur faces a little more to the front, and that kind of sucks if you want 90 degree turnout. In her case, forcing it to go farther will only cause her hip pain (which she is already experiencing).
To quote Bill Hartman from an article of his on femoral anteversion
Because this [anteversion] is a structural adaptation, the rotation is not something that will change with typical hip rotation mobility exercises and attempting to do so will only result in injury. If you should have an athlete with excessive hip internal rotation, developing a stronger core and glutes is essential.
So please understand that there are a lot of things about turnout that you don’t have power over, and in some cases it can be dangerous to try to get more turnout without a full understanding of what’s happening in your body.
I guess the underlying theme of this post is it might be time let it go. Change your mindset. Stop stressing out about turnout.
Dancers- Explain your anatomical limitations to your teachers if and when you feel too much pressure from them.
Dance teachers- Understand these limitations, educate your dancers, and encourage them to do the best with what they’ve got.
Here’s my personal opinion on training turnout- There are other things more important and more productive to train. Additional training time is better spent on things like strength development, that are proven to be effective and safe.
Rather than focusing on turnout, focus first on alignment.
We know that we can improve alignment through soft tissue release, exercise, and postural awareness. We know we can train the the core to become stronger and develop better control. But we don’t know if it’s possible to change your turnout beyond your genetic bony structure. It’s probably not. Not safely anyway.
Training turnout can be potentially risky, and I think many experts agree that a safer thing to do would be to work only with functional turnout (from hips, without twisting the knees and ankles).
Focus on what you can control (functional turnout, core strength, alignment), and don’t stress about what you can’t. It’s not the turnout that makes one dancer better than another. Although it is a nice bonus.
An important note on core strength
Remember that if you do decide to focus on training your turnout, you should first develop core strength, and in particular, a good understanding of what neutral spine is for you. Again, alignment is one of the most important thing that you can actually improve.
Many dancers (and most people, in general) have weakness and inhibition of their abdominals, glutes and other stabillizers of the spine and pelvis, with tons of compensation strategies to make up for this weakness. They might also have no idea where neutral is. Couple those trends with our obsession with forcing turnout, and you’ve got a recipe for pain.
Who and when should you train for more turnout?
In my opinion, the only time you should focus directly on improving turnout is if your active range of motion is less than you can get passively. Note you should also work on developing more hip internal rotation for injury prevention, as I mentioned earlier. But that’s a post for another time.
As a strength and conditioning specialist, I do not claim to be an expert on improving turnout. However, my dancers, after becoming stronger, and better aligned, reap the benefits of improved body awareness, and are able to work better with their functional turnout, which I think is more important than focusing on something they might never be able to attain (90 degree turnout).
For more info on turnout, check out these two great resources on the IADMS website:
Hip Anatomy and Factors Influencing Turnout
Turnout for Dancers: Supplemental Training
I’d love to hear about your turnout training philosophies. Have you had success improving yours? What do you do to improve your turnout? Leave a comment and let me know.