I love airplaning and all it’s variations. I can never remember exactly which warrior variation this is in yoga (is it 3?) but I think it is great, ass-burny fun.
Let’s talk a bit more about ankle and foot mechanics during the single leg deadlift/airplane/warrior 3/whatever the heck you call it.
Decided to make some detailed, scientific graphics to illustrate today’s concept. Behold, the airplane.
Recently, I received this question in an email about how to perform the airplane exercise:
Q: “…I’m sure I read somewhere in Dance Stronger you keep your supporting leg bent? Or did I totally imagine that?”
M: There are two trains of thought, and both are proper, as long as your choice is deliberate and done with awareness 😉 You can do it with a slightly unlocked knee, OR with a straight, but not hyperextended knee. If you are going to do it with an unlocked knee you foot should move into a slightly pronated position, while still maintaining a tripod, and if you do with a straight knee, your foot should be supinated (or at least attempting supinate away from pronation), with an arch, definitely not pronated. Try both and see how they feel.
A few hours later, the reply:
Q: Is it just a question of what feels better in your body or is there a reason why you would do one version over another?
M: It’s more like a question of how the foot and ankle coordinates with the knee dynamically in gait. In a single leg deadlift, as you go down, the foot and ankle should naturally pronate, and as you come up, should resupinate. So, bending the knee couples with pronation, and straightening the knee couples with supination. You want to respect that as much as possible in your training. So if you’re holding the airplane position with a straight leg, then you’ll want a supinated foot. If you’re holding the airplane with a slightly bent knee, you’ll want a slightly pronated foot, and if you’re realllyy bending your knee, you’ll want an even deeper pronation. If you’re doing the movement dynamically you should be able to move in and out of pronation and supination as your knee bends and straightens, respectively.
These were not the instructions I included in Dance Stronger, but hey, if people want details, I’m into that. I’m really into that. I’m stoked this question came up- seeing as lower foot and ankle issues are a huge deal in dance, the more we can do to integrate their healthy movement into weight bearing exercises, the better.
Did you know visual art was my lowest grade in high school? I don’t know why…
Trying to do a single leg deadlift with this focus on ankle and foot movement makes it feel INSANE. Bring this into your yoga practice and it will rock your world. Notice what your feet are doing during plies and you just might push a bit deeper down into a demi if you stop trying to control your arches from dropping.
By holding a pronated foot I don’t mean rolling completely to the inside letting the outer edge come off the floor- this would actually be an everted foot, I mean a “relatively pronated tripod”. And the same goes for supination. To supinate does not mean to roll all the way to the outside edge of the foot letting the ball of the big toe come off (that would be an inverted foot). We want an adaptable tripod, not a chunk.
This is why it’s useful to see people move without shoes on. At the gym/clinic I train at, nearly all of the clients I get as referrals from physio have orthotics. Orthotics for high arches, orthotics to support flat arches. What if you started treating your foot like the rest of your body and trained it to move better? Imagine if we all walked around with powerlifting belts on because we needed more “core support”- an ab orthotic. Just do the dang work, and if you still need the orthotic for your feet, or your abs, or whatever it is you are trying to control, it’ll be there for you.
My two cents for today. Tune into your feet on your single leg deadlifting/airplaning, and other activities, and see how an adaptive foot changes things for you.
Three of them are related to NOT stretching so much, and, if you read the other two, you’ll also see that they aren’t really pro-stretching either.
One could get the sense that I don’t like stretching. That sense would be correct.
But I also recognize that it is a necessary part of being a dancer, particularly if your style requires flexibility, and that makes me very, very confused. And intrigued!
I am leary of articles on the web that say, “Do this awesome stretch and your life will be complete!”, because:
a) I don’t know if their claims are true based on other peoples’ successful experiences, or if their claims are based on “this stretch stretches this muscle and this muscle is tight so stretching it must be good”
b) My own experience tells me that stretching stuff that feels tight can make things feel worse, and that stretching is NOT the only thing contributing to flexibility gains, and finally…
c) Limitations in flexibility must be considered on an individual basis, not based on one population (dancers, football players, desk-sitter-down-ats), because of the inherent variations between each person in that group.
That’s why I don’t post a lot of articles about the “best” stretches and exercises for improving X, Y or Z, for a particular ailment, performance enhancement, or population.
It’s also why creating Dance Stronger was really, really difficult. In fact, I hope I made it very clear that Dance Stronger is meant to be a self exploration through movement and strength training, a suggestion to experiment and question what you’ve been told about dance training, and a philosophy for success in dance, NOT a “do this stuff because I said so without using your brain” kind of training program.
I haven’t deliberately “stretched” for 4 few years, and I’m still “flexible”… WTF?
A few days ago I tried out my splits, just for fun, and guess what… I’ve still got it! On one leg anyway.
Aside from yoga (which I don’t consider “stretching”), and some silliness I was subjected to in several dance “warm-ups”, which would have been rude not to do (such is dance etiquette…), I have not deliberately set aside time to work on improving my flexibility with static stretching since 2012.
This may be N=1, but I think a lot of my smart colleagues will agree: Quantity of stretching is not the only factor related to improving flexibility.
If that statement makes your brain hurt, I am NOT saying that stretching won’t help you become more flexible, but that it is not the only part of developing and maintaining flexibility. If it were, 4 years of not stretching should have meant I lost some flexibility. Just one exception negates the “rule” (but I know I’m not the only one).
This is important information for dancers: We know that the excessive stretching used to achieve the degree of mobility and ligament laxity synonymous with success as a dancer can cause trouble for their bodies, but if we can reduce the amount of stress on their systems by reducing the amount of stretching they do while still maintaining requisite flexibility, we could help dancers perform better with less pain and greater longevity.
But could our egos handle that? (if it challenges your ego, you’re probably moving closer to the truth..)
This blog post is an expression of my quest for the “truth” about stretching. I may not have the answers for you today, but if you check in with me in 10 years, maybe I’ll have something more enlightening to share.
Before we continue, let me state my biases, my opinions, and that which I am ignorant of:
I don’t know much about helping people become more flexible with static stretching.
Most of what I know about stretching is what NOT to do (which goes a long way…)
I am biased towards not stretching because I was injured while overstretching, but this doesn’t mean it won’t help certain people who could benefit from more tissue length; I am aware of this bias and do my best not to let my own stories impact the exercises I choose for my clients.
I believe that dancers can develop amazing flexibility and learn to manage it safely and effectively, but this takes movement honesty, the ability to tune-in to one’s body, and self-respect: things you aren’t generally taught about stretching in dance class.
That last point is, to me, is the most important part. Follow any stretching program consistently and progressively from a place of honesty, awareness, and respect for you body’s limits, and you’ll probably get flexible safely. Is there a “best” stretching program? Doubt it. But there is a “best” intention and mindset for stretching.
“You can’t do what you won’t until you know what you’re doing.” Moshe Feldenkrais
That said, I have witnessed some wicked cool instant mobility improvements that were completely unrelated to stretching:
The dancer who’s “hamstring flexibility” was related to a breathing issue. Her active straight leg raise improved bilaterally after 5 minutes spent helping her feel a few full exhalations, getting her ribs into ZOA. It was cool. Her instinct might have been to stretch her hamstrings, but that may have actually made her more tight. Whether this was a core stabilization, air pressure, joint position, or nervous system adaptation, I have no clue. But it worked, and we didn’t stretch, so I’m into that.
The girl who’s toe touch was related to a knee internal rotation deficit. A friend of mine who, for 15 years was not able to touch her toes, bent down to touch the floor effortlessly after being taught a movement to improve her knee extension and internal rotation (Anatomy in Motion amazingness, and a can of worms I will not open right now…). It wasn’t her hamstrings that needed stretching, she had been stretching those for 15 years with no improvements! I still don’t quite know how to explain her drastic increase in range of motion, but it had something to do with the inability to internally rotate and extend her knees fully causing her to feel extra tension and her brain perceiving this to be an unsafe range to move into.
The dancer who improved her back-bend with developmental kinesiology. You guessed it, we didn’t stretch, but we drilled a DNS– inspired exercise integrating a reciprocal hip flexion/extension pattern with core and shoulder stability (variation of oblique sitting). In fact, when she got up to try her backbend, her increase in range caught her by surprise and she almost fell over.
Something kinda sorta like this…
So while I’m not afraid to say that I don’t know much about stretching, I know we can do less of it. I know stretching has it’s place but I don’t know how much and when are most optimal .And in what ratios? At what time? For how long? How little can we do for maximum results? Where’s the sweet spot?
I know you can increase flexibility and mobility without stretching, but I also know that stretching has to be a part of dance training- classical dance training anyway, to achieve the requisite lines and meet a certain standard (if you care about standards and expectations).
Stretching Myth: Static stretching is the gold standard for improving flexibility
Let’s get clear about one thing: Static stretching definitely can improve flexibility. I’m sure it has it’s place… I just don’t know for sure what that looks like, and I encourage the people reading this who have more experience and smartz than I to chime in.
It seems that, on our quest for flexibility, many of us will reach a point of diminishing returns after which stretching ceases to be beneficial and can actually make things suck.
As per the theme of this blog post (and my life in general), I can tell you more about when stretching is not warranted and what I don’t know than what I actually do. So many Nassim Taleb quotes apply:
“The sucker’s trap is when you focus on what you know and what others don’t know, rather than the reverse.”
“It remains the case that you know what is wrong with a lot more confidence than you know what is right.”
And this one in particular makes me feel better on days my brain is not cooperating:
“I want to live happily in a world I don’t understand.”
Stretching: A world I don’t understand…
At what point does stretching lose efficacy?
You feel bones start to bump into each other, like when you’re doing the splits but you feel a crunchy block in your lower back.
You no longer feel muscles stretching, but ligaments, joint capsule, and other passive structures loading.
You actually strain a muscle from overstretching (duh)
You have to hold your breath and make a squishy face to “survive” a stretch
Your pain symptoms or feelings of tightness are exacerbated after stretching
While most of these might seem like “duh, of course”, many of us still try to stretch away our problems! I’m guilty of it, and my guess is that you’re guilty of it, too (or at least you were at some point…).
To be completely honest: I am the girl who stretched bone into bone and thought the feeling of impingement was productive (pain=part of being a dancer was the mindset I was taught). I am the girl who tried to stretch away chronic hamstring tendonitis and then strained her hamstring stretching it in warm-up. And I am the girl who sat in the splits cold for several minutes before class, never quite exhaling fully, with complete disrespect for my ligamentous integrity. Also, I didn’t like water. Screw that stuff!
No movement honesty. No awareness. No respect.
Don’t do what I did.
#SimpsonsChallenge 4: Don’t Do What Donny Don’t Does. Please tell me at least one of you appreciates this!
What Factors Could Affect Flexibility, if not Quantity of Stretching?
Let’s say you’ve taken static stretching to it’s maximum potential and you’ve hit a flexibility plateau. You’ve hit a wall and are beginning to believe you’re no longer working with a tissue extensibility issue. Let’s assume your hydration status is great. And let’s also forget for now that being super bendy isn’t always advantageous if you also value force production (strength and power) and proprioception (body’s position sensing ability).
These are likely to be the two main factors that are limiting your flexibility:
Static joint position: A habitual posture you can’t get out of, joints compressing to provide support and proprioception to your body and you don’t want to leave that “happy place”.
Nervous system putting on the the brakes. Your brain perceives something might be unsafe to move into and adds extra tension at rest as a protective measure. You can’t just “stretch away” this type of increased muscle tone.
Either stuff gets compressed, stuck short, and you can’t move out of or go further into that position because it feels unsafe,
Stuff is already stretched out, stuck long, and under high tension, so you can’t move out of or go further into that position because it feels unsafe.
Which leads us to a very important myth we need to stop perpetuating: “If it feels tight, stretch it.”
What if you are stuck in a position due to compression, for example, your lower back is stuck in a mad degree of extension and you can’t bend to touch your toes.
“Stretching harder” will probably place additional load on other areas, maybe the hamstrings or upper back, because your lower back is stuck and can’t flex forwards. It may be stuck for a very useful reason: Bones are very stable and reassuring for those of us who can’t sense where we are in space. That doesn’t make it a good long-term strategy.
In this same story, if your hamstrings are already stuck long from overstretching them, then any additional stretch on them will be perceived as “danger”, and Mr. Brain may tell them to tighten up to protect themselves from getting even longer.
In this example, the lower back needs to be given an experience that allows it to leave end-range compression in a way that feels safe and useful, and the hamstrings need an experience that gives them no option but to contract so they can get out of end range length.
This “experience” does not often need to be a static stretch. Think outside the box…
It can be a breathing exercise, a “core” exercise, PNF, or muscle energy. It can be meditation or inner-work to let go of limiting beliefs affecting movement and alignment. It can be any movement that gives the experience of something different, to explore something that was missing, in a safe way. In Anatomy in Motion, sometimes this means momentarily bringing a joint into the very end range it is stuck in to teach it how to get out of it, but it can also mean giving it the experience of the complete opposite motion that it is stuck in. Both can work, but it depends on the person, their history, they way their unique brains and bodies react.
As I bring this post to and end, sorry if you were expecting a stretching routine. I don’t feel that I can ethically do that.
But I DO encourage you to try something different. Try not stretching. Try something else. Try the opposite of what you’re currently doing.
If you want some ideas, structure, and an approach to dance training that doesn’t emphasize stretching, I encourage you to check out Dance Stronger. It’s not a “how to” guide, exactly, but a “think-for yourself, you-may-find-my suggestions-useful, how-to-NOT” guide to enhance your dancing through supplemental strategies outside the classroom.
Read the first two chapters free. Discover the secrets to ruining a dance career, fast! 😉 And MORE!
This surprised me because I definitely do not have any new or ideas on the topic. I’m just doing my best to reiterate what the most influential people I’ve had the honour of learning from have taught me in a language that makes sense to myself, my clients, and hopefully to you.
My thoughts on core training are not new, and not that interesting. But for the dance world, I guess they can seem unconventional.
The “core”, much like the Earth, has been around and doing just fine long before we naively intervened and labeled it “core”; it was probably doing better for itself (and for us!) before we tried to systematize, aestheticize, and control it’s training.
I feel uneasy about adding more “new” stuff to this information-cluttered internet-thing we’re addicted to getting answers from, but it hurts me more to see people doing silly things with their bodies *coughtraceyandersoncough* in an ignorant, tone-oriented, sympathetic-driven haze, for the sake of “core strength” and a six pack.
Let’s clear some of that haze, eh?
Here are some of the supposedly “unconventional” ideas on core training I hold that are actually anything but unconventional- They’re quite sensible.
WHAT IS “CORE TRAINING”?
And the reason I feel it is even necessary to write this is because every single dang dancer ever in their career will hear from a teacher that they need a “stronger core”. I’ve yet to meet a dancer who hasn’t.
Core training goes beyond concentrically working the muscles we are commonly taught need to be strengthened and toned.
My approach is guided by five key principles. If you understand these principles and base your training around them, it really doesn’t matter what exercises you choose (for the most part…).
1. Know your anatomy: Understand the intrinsic and extrinsic core subsystems and their roles.
2. Breathing: Learn to create intra-abdominal pressure andload core musculature through your breath.
3. Mobility: Recognize and appraise the need for mobility as a prerequisite for training stability.
4. Remove roadblocks for reactive core: Become aware of compensatory patterns that could be limiting effortless core connectivity.
5. Semantics: Place importance on the words used to describe training, which matter just as much as the physical training.
These principles matter more than the exercises you use.
Let’s go into these in a bit more detail.
1. THOUGHTS ON CORE FUNCTIONAL ANATOMY
It is kind of important to have at least a little bit of understanding of which muscles we’re talking about. Kind of. What’s more important is to FEEL them.
Today my colleague Wensy Wong, kinesiologist and massage therapist, ie has MAJOR anatomy knowledge, told me that it wasn’t until just recently she really understood the psoas, because finally she could feel it. Knowing where a muscle is in a textbook, in 2D, is one thing, feeling it in your body is completely different. You have to experience it to know it.
You can’t say that you know someone personally because you read their autobiography and stalk them on the internet.
Anyway, some anatomy.
The core is more than just the muscles of your trunk and your abs. Think of the core as a hierarchical system of units.
Intrinsic core musculature (inner unit):Deeper muscles, not responsible for creating large movements, but hold “stuff” together.
Transverse abdominis (TVA)
Lower erector spinae
Extrinsic core musculature (outer unit):More superficial muscles, important in larger movements.
Upper erector spinae
Understand that in the hierarchy of the core system, intrinsic subsystem function is most fundamental.
We’d like to see these two systems in balance, performing their proper roles: The instrinsic system holding stuff together and providing adequate intra-abdominal pressure and proprioception (position sensing) so that the extrinsic core can allow us to move freely.
It is possible for all or part of the intrinsic core unit to become relied upon excessively for movement rather than the extrinsic core, and visa versa. Sometimes, one part of the intrinsic unit will be working harder than another in an attempt to find a sense of grounding, counter-balance, or irradiation to increase muscle contractile strength (examples of this coming up a bit further down…).
This should, ideally, be cleaned up and re-trained before performing a more complex, high-threshold exercise. Even a plank can get messy if this system isn’t balanced.
2. BREATH CONTROL = CORE CONTROL
This really should not be considered unconventional. Many people claim to “know” that breathing is important for core connectivity. We hear it every dang day as dancers, yogis, pilates-ers (what’s the plural for a pilates enthusiast?).
So if you really “know” it, then why aren’t you working on it? Why aren’t you teaching it? Why haven’t you made progress with “core strength”? Telling students to breathe isn’t the same as coaching them on how to breathe for core connectivity.
Remember that to know is to have had experienced it. Do you really know how breathing affects core connectivity? Have you ever felt that connection?
This is tricky. It’s something that often requires coaching. Get on that. It’s totally worth it.
The breath allows you to create an “airbag for your spine”, to load core musculature, and create a safe space mentally for you to train, adapt, and recover.
Creating intra-abdominal pressure: Air pressure in the abdominal cavity prevents excessive movement in the spine- dictated by our breathing. Using “umbrella”-style inhalations (360 degree expansion) to fill out the abdominal cavity evenly creates an “air bag” to cushion the spine as it moves freely, allowing muscles to load as a response.
Eccentric and concentric loading:Inhalation, is required for eccentric loading (lengthening) of the abdominal muscles as the abdomen expands. A muscle first needs to be able to lengthen to be contracted effectively, and an 360 degree inhalation does just that.
A full exhalation concentrically contracts the abs and gives us Zone of Apposition (ZOA) with the ribcage depressed. This position allows for a more ideal use of both intrinsic and extrinsic core muscles, because joint position dictates muscle reaction.
Concentric contraction (shortening)
Eccentric contraction (lengthening)
Concentric contraction (shortening)
Autonomic nervous system state: Exhalations bring the nervous system to a safe state of growth, recovery, and flow, where learning and change is possible, by activating the vagus nerve. This state- parasympathetic (opposite of fight/flight), is a state where you should ideally approach training from if you actually want to improve.
So you can do 500 stress-crunches while you hold your breath and grind your teeth. I. Don’t. Care.
3. CORE MOBILITY
All we talk about as an industry (both in dance and fitness) is core stability, being in control, and preventing movement but, consider this: Your spine has 33 joints- It was designed for effortless movement!
Things that are chunks, or planks, or blocks were designed to be rigid by nature of their structure. Things that are designed to have many small parts and joints are naturally intended to allow movement.
So would we train our spines for stability before considering its innate need to move? And I don’t blame you. I was that idiot-trainer making my clients do planks, preaching the value of “stability”, before appraising their spinal mobility. Don’t be idiot-me. You’re better than that.
Consider these four ways that your core craves mobility:
Spinal stability vs. spinal mobility: Preventing the spine from moving by stiffening is useful at times, but full potential for movement of the spine is prerequisite for stability. How long and fast could you ride a bike with a rusty chain and jammed links? Your spine, like a bike chain, needs to have the potential to allow movement at all segments. Appraise the spine’s need for mobility before giving it a stability solution.
Courtesy of Gary Ward, here’s one of my favourite spinal mobility experiences right now- Cogs:
First joints act, then muscles react (to movement): Movement of the skeleton dictates muscle (re)action. The goal is not to forcefully activate and and consciously engage the core, but to allow it to reflexively fire as a reaction to movement. So movement of the spine and pelvis, to which “core” musculature attaches, is necessary for the muscles to load and contract.
Muscles must lengthen before they contract: Like a slingshot, muscles “load to explode”. Training only concentrically by shortening muscles to create movement (think crunches) does not replicate this natural function. Excessive “tone-seeking”, thus, can prevent lengthening, reducing mobility and reactivity, and limiting performance. Concentric work is useful, but length needs to be created before you can earn the right to shorten.
Management of base of support within center of mass:How much movement can your center of mass access within your base of support? How far can you shift without moving your feet before you fall or need to take a step? Core muscles react as the body moves away from and back towards center.
When we keep things “tight” constantly it doesn’t allow this natural movement in and out of our base of support. Finding “center” therefore, is more a result of experiencing a full spectrum of movement, not of keeping things tight.
4. REMOVING ROADBLOCKS: COMMON CORE COMPENSATIONS
Remember above I mentioned there are ways the core systems can become out of balance? This can happen be due to trauma, injury, habitual ways of holding our bodies, or repetitive patterns of moving. These roadblocks can prevent our bodies from accessing joint movements and positions.
Many of us unconsciously develop strategies to get around these roadblocks. These “compensations” are not bad. THANK your body for finding these clever strategies and allowing you to continue to move and live. Know that they aren’t serving you anymore, address them head on, and find a new way through them, not around.
Here are some common road-blocks for dancers (and most humans):
Breath-holding:Can cause diaphragm to be used more as a muscle of stabilization (due to it’s connection to the spine) than respiration, influencing spine/ribcage position, movement potential, and ability to recover from training.
Jaw clenching/shifting: An attempt for proprioception, counterbalance, co-contraction, or a response to stress and strain and is commonly found to be facilitated in relation to abdominal function.As Dr. Kathy Dooley explains HERE:
Because the TMJ has more proprioception per surface area than any other joint in the human body, you will go where your jaw shifts you to go…When the jaw shifts, the center of mass shifts. This will down-regulate recruitment of the opposite side core in the sagittal plane.
Pelvic floor: Part of the intrinsic unit, tightness, overworking, weakness, sub-optimal positioning, digestive function, organ issues, urinary control, all influence core function.
Mobility limitations in general:Can affect the ability of core muscles to load, reducing their role ability to react to movement (limited hip mobility, and spine segmental mobility in at least one of three planes is fairly safe to assume…).
You cannot change that which you are not yet aware of. Do you know which roadblocks could be in your path?
Sometimes, just cultivating awareness and openness to change is all it takes to make a shift. Other times, it is necessary to seek guidance from a movement coach or therapist to help you. NeuroKinetic Therapy (TM) practitioners and Anatomy in Motion folks are trained to discover and unwind these compensatory strategies (but so can most good therapists of any background).
5. CORE SEMANTICS
As a writer, I appreciate the power of words, and I know a lot of you do, too. But the correlation between core training and the words we traditionally use to talk about it in dance is particularly interesting. And in major need of change.
“Core semantics” shape our results, and require a consideration equal to the physical training itself, as we speak to ourselves and guide others as dancers, teachers, therapists, and parents.
In the table below, which column sounds more useful? Which sounds more like dance? Which choice of vocabulary will you apply to your “core training”?
On the left, words we use that limit potential movement by asking dancers to contract muscles, and on the right, words we can consider using to encourage dancers to move, allow muscles to lengthen, and explore new ranges of motion. A different perspective on “core training” for some folks, perhaps.
DEDICATE 30 DAYS TO EXPLORING YOUR CORE:
Ready to commit yourself to figuring out this “core” thing? I’ve got just the thing for you:
Sign up for the next free 30 day Restore Your Core Challenge. You’ll learn to master one concept and exercise each week through exploration of the “core concepts”, exercise video tutorials, and community support. Join our tribe of stronger dancers and learn how taking a few minutes each day to unlock the power of your “core” can transform the way you move and feel. Totally free. Find out what could change if you dedicated a few minutes each day to unravelling your core. We do these challenges LIVE, together, every July, October, January, and April.
I suppose if you had to take just one thing away from this article it would be that core training is really just a result of allowing your body to explore movement and breath so it can do what it needs to do when it needs to do it.
Need to lift something heavy? Make sure you have access to all ranges of motion necessary to do that and understand how to breathe for that situation.
Need to balance on one leg for 30 seconds? Make sure you have access to all ranges of motion necessary to do that and understand how to breathe for that situation.
Simple as that. Maybe too simple. But simple does not mean easy.
Funny how just by allowing you body to move into ranges of motion that have been denied or avoided, breathing appropriately for the situation, using a more helpful choice of words, and getting some help when you get stuck the “core” just kind of takes care of itself without much time and energy spent on “training the abs”.
For more information on unconventional/sensible ways of training for dance, check out Dance Stronger: A multi-media resource created to help you understand the why and how of training breath, movement, and strength to improve dance performance and reduce soreness. Available by donation, so no excuses 😉 Get training!
Everyone in Pittsburgh is super friendly. I love America. I really do.
The hotel gave us free unlimited fruit (which I definitely didn’t take advantage of everyday). At the conference itself we got unlimited free coffee (which I didn’t also take advantage of…). And I got to hang out with dance-science nerds all day for 4 days. Dance science majors, PhDs, and other professionals who work with dancers in a big way. It wasn’t intimidating at all. But as Julien Smith says, “Strive to be the stupidest person in the room”, meaning, try to hang out with people smarter than you. Mission accomplished, IADMS. And how.
There was a lot of sarcasm in that paragraph. Apologies.
Another bonus was that I got to meet the actual faces of people I’ve only ever interacted with via email and social media, including some DTP readers, and it wasn’t creepy at all to meet my internet friends. The internet is so awesome for connecting with people (but that doesn’t mean you’ll see me on a dating site any time soon).
Lauren Warnecke and I at the IADMS opening reception. Dance-fitness super heroes.
Back story to this photo: Lauren Warnecke, Catherine Tully, and I were out for dinner, and while Catherine was in the washroom, a server asked Lauren and I if we were super heroes (apparently there was some kind of Marvel related show going on next-door at a convention center and he assumed we were part of it). Must be all those deadlifts because neither of us were wearing our capes. Hence the obligatory super hero photo. I love Pittsburgh!
IADMS was a great, but here’s what I left the conference feeling: It’s all very well and good that we, the people passionate about the dance sciences, are able to network and share our experiences and wisdom with each other, but the high costs and travel required to attend conferences like this are excluding a very important group of people: Dancers.
We all want to make accessibility of information, affordable training, and therapies more available to dancers, and we ‘re all passionate about it, but the actual doing is lacking.
How do we make information on best-practices for dancers more readily available to dancers? How do we provide dancers with affordable, high-quality supplementary training? And how do we give them access to the rehabilitation and therapy they need (especially in countries like the US where insurance doesn’t always cover therapists).
You could say I’m pretty passionate about accessibility. This accessibility issue is what my career path is based upon after all.
So, with a head full of science, and inspired to share it all with the dancers who need it, I created the Dance Stronger Quiz. Because it’s the very least I can do to help make this information available, in a (hopefully) fun format.
The DS quiz is designed to test your knowledge on what evidence shows are the best practices to improve dance performance and prevent injuries, but it also will teach you a bunch or new stuff(or be a nice review for some of you).
When you’re done, you can get the answer key sent to you via email, and it would be great if you let me know how you did in the comments below the quiz. Nothing like a little friendly competition 😉
Oh, and in other news…
WANT TO LISTEN TO AN INTERVIEW I JUST DID?
Yeah you do! I can’t bear to listen to myself talking and I haven’t listened to this interview since it was recorded, but people have been telling me that it was pretty good, dare I even say AMAZING. You’ll be the judge.
I had the delightful opportunity to speak with Annett Bone of DancePreneuring Studio about some things that I give a damn about. In particular, enjoying longevity in dance without messing yourself up.
Annett was one of the original trial members of the Dance Stronger program. She is an absolute gem, and her podcast covers topics relating to dance, entrepreneuring, and living a creative life.
We had an excellent chat about how to adopt a mindset that will help you succeed at dance long-term, and you’ll hear me talk all about the many ways I screwed up, got injured, and why I started the Dance Training Project in the first place.
And while I’m giving updates on the various places on the web I’ve been doing stuff, maybe you didn’t get the memo that I’ve closed up my training studio on Adelaide St. to join the personal training team at Sports Medicine Specialists.
SMS has a program called Dynamic Functional Training (DFT) which allows a part of your training to be covered through your insurance. YAY! So while I am happy/sad about leaving my training studio to join SMS- sad because I no longer am able to offer a lower studentcharity rate for my university dancers- I’m mostly happy because now you can train with me through your (or your parents’) insurance.
DFT sessions are 30 minutes in length. To join the DFT program you first need to see a physio/MD at SMS. They will then refer you to me [or another fine trainer at SMS, but please choose me :)]. These 30 minute sessions act as “out-sourced physio”, meaning that rather than the physio work on exercises with you, you do them with me. It’s a pretty awesome program, and it can save you money if you have health benefits.
My favourite part of dancing is rolling around on the floor. Hell, rolling on the floor is my favourite part of life. —–>
So of course I love Turkish get-ups (TGUs).
The Turkish get-up is an exercise that systematically takes you from lying on the floor, up to standing, while holding a heavy weight over your face. Like a badass.
TGUs are one of the exercises that I feel has great carryover for dancers to their art and athleticism. Not only are they useful for getting you strong and mobile, they look pretty bad ass, too. Which is important, obviously.
In my online training group over at DanceStronger.com, the exercise that gets the most number of questions is the TGU:
“What does this thing even do?
“What’s the point?”
“What muscles am I working?”
“Why is it Turkish?”
Today I’m going to break down why I feel that the Turkish get-up is one of the most useful exercises for dancers, and how to start working on them so you can reap the benefits for yourself.
Looks fun right?
10 Ways TGUs Make You a Better Dancer
1) Creating and controlling rotation
Dance is all about rotation. Creating it, resisting it, trying not to get dizzy and fall on stage.
TGUs are pretty similar- The whole movement requires that you create and control rotation, and not fall over. But with a heavy weight over your face.
From the very first roll portion of the TGU, you need to be able to coordinate lats, glutes, and obliques to roll up onto your elbow. If they aren’t coordinating, it turns into more of a crunch or a side bending movement. This compensation can happen in dance too- Moving in another plane to compensate for a lack of rotation.
A good example of this is when a dancer lacks sufficient hip rotation (think turnout), other ways of mimicking hip rotation include to tip the pelvis or hike a hip to create the illusion of more turnout.
A successful TGU requires you to differentiate between rotation and other cheaty ways of moving.
2) TGUs are a self-limiting exercise
A self limiting exercise is one that gives you immediate feedback as to whether you’re performing it correctly. This is quite useful, especially if you don’t have supervision.
As described beautifully by Gray Cook from his book Movement:
Used correctly, self-limiting exercises improve poor movements and maintain functional movement quality. These exercises are challenging and produce a high neural load, which is to say they require engagement and increased levels of motor control at the conscious and reflexive level.
Anytime we don’t acknowledge our weakest links or confront them in training, we demonstrate the same behavior that caused our collective functional movement patterns to erode in the first place. Embedded in each workout, the self-limiting activities continually whisper the message that we cannot become stronger than our weakest links.
from Movement, by Gray Cook
How is a TGU self limiting? Well, there’s the pressure not to drop a heavy thing on your face, for one.
If you’re not getting your body under the weight efficiently, you will feel it. A great variation for those just learning the TGU is to balance a shoe on your fist.
I suggest for beginners to use the shoe variation to practice getting under the weight first, before loading it up. If you drop the shoe off your first, you get immediate feedback as to whether your arm is in a straight line with gravity, or not.You want that straight line. Your face wants that straight line, because it wants to stay pretty.
I’m currently working with a dancer who says that rolling on the floor, and having push herself up off the floor from a lying position really hurts her elbows. Why? Because she doesn’t know how to coordinate her obliques and shoulders together with her lower body, so the path of least resistance just happens to be the bones that articulate to create her elbow. Not cool!
Fortunately, TGUs can help with this issue.
Not only that, but in a TGU you’re using both arms in two completely different ways- The supporting arm is working in a closed chain, creating rotational movement by pushing into the floor, while the top arm is working open chain, developing shoulder stability in an overhead position integrated with the whole body.
In the photo above, my bottom arm is closed chain (contact with the floor), and the top arm is working open chain (free!).
The sequence in which muscles fire changes depending on whether you’re working in a closed or open chain, and with the TGU you get both at the same time. That’s a lot of awesome stuff happening at once!
In dance, even ballet sometimes, you will need to support your body with your arms (or just one arm), in an awkward, rotated position, and sometimes you need to lift people. So you’d better train both those abilities outside the studio.
If you have cranky shoulders, or too much shoulder mobility as is common in many dancers (making dislocation a dangerous possibility), the TGU just might be your money exercise. I’ve heard a colleague of mine refer to the TGU as one of his favourite shoulder rehab exercises, and I can see why.
In fact, when my shoulders are feeling crappy, TGUs often help. And from all the typing I do for this blog, sometimes my right wrist gets sore, but TGUs always seem to make it feel better.
“You also have to stabilize the kettlebell from rotating around your wrist, which takes a lot of rotator cuff involvement, making this a much more involved shoulder training movement compared to endless external rotations with a band.”
So there you go- A totally badass shoulder rehab exercise that doesn’t require elastic bands or cables. You’re welcome.
4) Mimics dance movement
It’s like a weighted dance-move.
The way the TGU felt like a dance move was what initially attracted me to it.
It’s important for dancers to understand why an exercise will help them become stronger for dance and, because this movement has some moments that feel “dancey” it helps the dancer to feel more motivated to do actually do it.
Can you see how this:
Is similar to THIS:
You don’t have to be a genius to see the parallels. (But apparently you do need to be a genius to spell parallel correctly the first time…)
Building a solid TGU will also help immensely with floor-work in dance. If you have the strength to roll off the floor with a heavy thing over your face, you will for sure have the requisite strength and coordination to roll around on the ground and be in complete control, without screwing any of your joints.
And if you happen to be a bit more of a pointy person, then the more lightly you can roll on the floor the happier your protruding bones will be. I happen to not be a very pointy person. My tibial tuberosity is pretty much non-existant.
Unless you’re me!
I also have enough muscle on my back and shoulders to cushion them, and I can’t even round my lower back (lumbar flex) enough to feel those vertebrae grinding on the floor. I was built to roll on the ground. But I seem to be more an exception than the rule, so having the strength to not weight bear completely on all your pointy bits will likely help you appreciate floor work a bit more.
5) Exposes all your limitations
This is a good thing. It’s good to put your ego in it’s place once in a while. Like when you go to a dance class and every exercise is 9 bars of 17 counts and you can’t pick any of it up so you laugh your way through class. Not that that’s ever happened to me. This week…
But anyway, there are so many individual phases of the TGU, each capable of revealing your weaknesses. Good news, because now you know exactly what you can work on and you can start to become better, stronger, faster, and all that Daft Punk tells us to become.
For example, in the first roll to elbow you can tell a lot about someone’s preferred way to rotate. Are the obliques creating the torso rotation along with help from the lats and glutes? Or do you create momentum from your neck, thrusting your ribs, or kicking up a leg? These habits are all quite common, and the sooner you can become aware of them the better because if you’re cheating rotation in a TGU, you’re probably cheating it every where else.
6) Builds insane amounts of body awareness
As Tony Gentilcore references in THIS hilariously informative article, Gray Cook has referred to the Turkish get-up as being loaded-yoga (which to me means coffee-yoga-bacon). Yoga being an activity that requires you to calm your mind, breathe, and feel the positions you’re moving through.
In fact, one of my favourite experimental sessions I’ve done recently involved super-setting TGUs with sun salutations. It was all kinds of bendy-strong awesome.
So back to body awareness. It’s pretty obvious- The demands of the TGU to move through multiple planes, while centering your body efficiently under a weight, and not dislocating a shoulder or getting your face smashed require that you know exactly what each part of your body is doing at each phase of the movement.
I don’t think I need to make a strong case for how important body awareness is for dancers. Dance IS body awareness.
7) Helpful for teaching anti-extension
I don’t have stats on this, but I’d say that one of the most common issues dancers need to overcome in their training is learning how NOT to extend when they don’t need to. By extend I mean arching the lower back and allowing the ribcage to flare up, or extending the neck by thrusting the chin forward and up.
These are all helpful cheats to create forward momentum and find stability, but they aren’t highly effective long-term I’m afraid.
I love the TGU for teaching anti-extension because it allows you to develop this awareness in all planes of movement- Rotation, laterally, and in the saggital plane (forward and back).
It is common on the first roll up to the elbow for trainees to accomplish the rotation by arching through the lower back, and flaring the ribcage. You can see a good demo of this in the video below:
Learning to control excessive extension in the context of a TGU is incredibly helpful for teaching dancers to own the true power of their anterior core in conjunction with rotational movement, a stressful environment (remember that big ass weight over your head?), with a heavy demand for shoulder and hip control without using their common bendy dance cheats.
8) Fundamentals, transitional moments, and forward/backwards movement in one exercise
Turkish get-ups are like watching a baby grow up in fast motion.
I’m into teaching movement developmentally, progressing from lying supine, rolling over, crawling, trying to stand up and then stepping.
Unfortunately, as we grow older and learn new ways of moving (or not moving), we can “forget” these helpful developmental phases, which were so important in teaching us to move efficiently and pain-free when we were young.
Re-learning to roll and crawl can have an amazing effect on your physical performance, as well as your body’s well-being and risk of injury, and being able to crawl and roll are essential for TGU mastery. It rewires your nervous system with the fundamentals it needs to do complex movements more easily.
Ignoring the fundamentals of movement is like trying to put icing on a cake that you haven’t baked yet. And as much as a bowl of icing mixed into cake batter sounds awesome, it’s not a cake no matter how much you pretend.
As Dr. Kathy Dooley writes in this excellent article on crawling, as babies we instinctively needed to master crawling before moving to the next movement milestone, but years of sitting and poor movement patterning can rob us of our right to crawl:
Baby You knew how to [crawl] without being taught. But you didn’t do it before your joints were backed up with perfectly equilibrated stability points. Your anterior and posterior functional slings worked in unison on a stable trunk.
Then, you were stuck behind a desk for 12 years of schooling. Add potentially decades to that if you have a desk job. So, jumping right into quadruped ambulation may not go well. People who crawl after years in absentia end up with joint pain.
Remember: Baby You used perfect stability points on a stable trunk that Adult You currently may be missing.
Crunches don’t do it, no matter how many you do. Baby You didn’t do crunches. Trunk stability will have to be earned back like Baby You earned it. Learn to breathe again, as you did at 4 months.
Another beauty of the TGU lies the transitions. Has any dance teacher ever emphasized the importance of the transitions between movements? I bet.
TGUs are an excellent opportunity to own the transitional phases, and you’ll feel immediately if they aren’t happening smoothly because remember that heavy thing right above your face? Slow down these transitions and have fun getting ridiculously strong.
And then, after you’ve transitioned from lying, to kneeling, you have to stand up integrating bipedal propulsion into the equation. And THEN you have to reverse the movement all the way to the floor. The word “retrograde” still gives me nightmares… Thank you improv class.
9) Promotes cross-lateralization and addresses asymmetries
Lateralization refers to how some cognitive functions tend to be dominated by one side of the brain or the other.
Asymmetries is another word you need to be a genius to spell correctly the first time.
Cross-lateralization refers to the ability to coordinate the right and left sides of the body. In this article Sharon Krull explains the importance of crossing the midline and cross lateral movement for the healthy function of our brains as we develop :
“Crossing the midline” refers to the ability to move a part of the body– such as a hand, foot or eye– into the space of the other hand, foot or eye. Being able to cross the midline indicates that the child has reached the point in his or her development that the right and left side of the brain are working in tandem.
Unfortunately, sometimes we “forget” how to perform cross-lateral movements, or we get stuck moving in patterns wherein we only cross the midline in one way. In dance, we can get stuck in patterns like this, such as always turning on our preferred leg (generally the left leg, turning to the right).
It is completely normal for dancers to develop lateral biases, but as explained in this review, working consistently to re-establish some sense of symmetry might be useful for preventing injuries.
“In an ideal world, dancers would be totally balanced in their physical and technical training on both sides of their body. They would be able to perform any of these dance tasks equally on either leg and to either side, and thus provide a “perfect,” symmetrically balanced instrument for the choreographer. Realistically, it is more likely that a trained dancer has an asymmetrical body structure, a preference for learning and performing specific skills on one leg or one side, and a dance technique that is functionally asymmetrical—that is, dance skills are performed more proficiently on one leg or side than the other.”
And as the same review describes, we can see that dancers tend to favor using one leg for support, depending on the movement taking place,
“Strong right turning preferences were identified in both studies, but this right bias did not necessarily carry over to other skills, which varied between right and left. A right preference for balance was evident when balance was challenged (as in piqué) When range of motion (ROM) was the issue, however (in battement à la seconde and ronde de jambe the balance preference switched to the left leg.”
I’d like to see a ballet include fouettee turns to the left. Yeah… One day.
So how do TGUs come into play? A well executed Turkish get-up requires the brain to coordinate the right and left sides of the body (and brain), and seeing how dance causes us to move in preferred patterns, especially when rehearsing repertoire, there are likely a lot of cross-lateral gaps that need some filling.
To sum up: Practicing TGUs on both sides is good for lopsided dancer brain. When you try them out, be aware which side is easier for you. Can you rotate better to the right or to the left? Which direction do you turn better to in dance? *hint* the results will probably add up.
10) TGUs can help you improve your balance
We all just want balance like THIS:
So how can TGUs help with balance?
As described here by Strong First leader Brandon Hetzler, the TGU stimulates all 3 systems that contribute to balance:
Vestibular system– You must know the orientation of the body with respect to gravity and be able to adjust your position accordingly.
Proprioceptive system– You must know where your body is in space throughout the movement.
Visual system– You must have your eyes on the weight throughout the movement.
You cannot get that bang for your buck doing weird “functional” things on a bosu ball.
How to get started
So I bet by now you’re totally stoked to start adding TGUs into your life. But hold on there, cowboy. Don’t just grab a weight and start flinging it around. I recommend to break down the movement into it’s individual chunks, and mastering each one before moving on to the next.
Here’s how I would break it down (others may not agree with me, but that’s ok, there’s a lot of ways to skin a cat):
1) Practice the first roll up to elbow on it’s own. Initially getting off the floor is arguably the hardest part of the whole movement. If you can do this easily with bodyweight, add in a shoe, as demonstrated in the video above. When you stop dropping the shoe, add in a reasonably weighted kettlebell. When you can do 5 reps with a weight, move along to the next step.
2) Up to halfway. While probably not technically the halfway point, I like to call the high bridge position half-way. Some people don’t care about the high bridge, but I do. You need a good high bridge in dance, so I say you should do it. I like to visualize my hips stretching out at the top of the bridge.
It’s not wrong not to do this phase, but you’re going to use this position in dance, so I recommend that you practice it in a TGU. When you feel solid going up to high bridge and back down with your bodyweight, try adding the shoe, then try adding the weight, same as before.
High bridge position
3) You’re ready to stand up! Same progression as before: Wrap your brain around the movement, use a shoe, and then add in a weight.
DO NOT go out and try this Day 1 with a heavy kettlebell. Work through the positions/steps with body weight first, or even with a shoe on your fist. Please take the time to really feel this lift out. I often tell my clients to pause for a 2 count at each position, as if they’re getting their picture taken at a photo shoot. Beginners are notorious for blowing through this lift, and not really milking all of its benefits. When in doubt, slow it down!
You probably won’t be doing more than one complete repetition per side with weight, and you shouldn’t feel totally destroyed by the end of that one rep, so choose a weight that feels reasonable, and that doesn’t make you fear for your life.
I’m also going to add in that it is highly valuable to get a skilled professional to coach you through a get-up at least once.
Initially, I learned from a Youtube video, and I was doing ok, but realize that this is not a complete education. There are many subtle nuances and ways to tweak your technique that change the way it feels, and the efficacy of the movement.
And from a general fitness perspective, a lot of typical “gym” exercises don’t ever allow us to create rotational movement, using all sorts of points of contact with our bodies on the floor, providing for a very rich sensory experience (while looking totally badass). I urge you to get out of saggital plane only workouts, and out of the seated exercise machines.
Get down on the floor and get up. And then back down. Feel the rotation necessary, coordinating efficiently from all parts of your body.
Try the first roll + shoe. Do it 5 times without dropping the shoe. See if you can accomplish this in a week (you totally can). Progress it from there. Let me know how it goes in the comments below.
The Turkish get-up is an exercise I include in my latest brain child, Dance Stronger– A book + training program + community that gives you the tools to develop dance-specific strength for improved performance and less injuries. Check it out and see how to include the TGU into your training routine.
Click the image above to get the first two chapters of Dance Stronger for free. Yay!