The way teachers sometimes talk about our quads, it’s easy to feel like we’re expected to dance without them.
“Don’t grip your quads!”
“The movement should come from underneath the leg, use your hamstrings, not your quads!”
“Don’t do squats, you don’t want to over-develop your quads.”
“Your quads are too big.” (FYI if a teacher ever tells you that, find a new teacher! Just my opinion…)
I’ve got news for you: Your quads aren’t bad.
And I’m going to explain why in today’s post.
NO MUSCLES OR MOVEMENTS ARE “BAD”
Just like pronation isn’t bad. You may be warned against using your quads or pronating your feet, but you actually need these important muscles and movements to function optimally and avoid injury in dance.
You need to use your quads to dance, and ideally they should be strong. Trying to dance without your quads is just silly so you can stop feeling bad about it right now.
I’m talking about the “Lift your leg using your hamstring” cue during developpe or grand battement front and side, and other such movements. Sorry, it just isn’t possible. Your hamstrings don’t do that.
I’m sure you’ve had teachers tell you that to lift the leg, you shouldn’t be using your quads, but rather your inner thighs (adductors), hamstrings, and butt. And if you feel your quads “gripping” that’s bad bad bad and you will get big, bad, bulky quads as a result.
I have muscular legs. It’s my genetic programming since puberty and even before. I’m athletic. I’m not a perfect ballet body-type.
As such, I was always told that this was because I was working the wrong way. My technique was all backwards. I was using my quads too much and that I need to stop because my quads would get too big and I wouldn’t be hired as a dancer. It made me feel awful about myself, my body, and my abilities as a dancer.
I’m sure many of you can relate to this fear of quad over-use.
But for the record, that’s all BS. You quads are supposed to lift your leg. Let them do their dang job.
THE QUAD-FEAR IS EVERYWHERE
Here are a few examples of this quad fear mindset from around the net:
Q: “For two years I took a ballet class for one day a week. And my teacher told me I had extreme potential to be a professional ballet dancer. So she told me to sign up for the alabama ballet school which I did. In january she let me en pointe but the pointe classes weren’t that good so I had to practice and learn by myself at home. Everything went well except for developpes and grand battements. I used my quads instead of my inner thigh muscles. now i’m trying to figure out how do I not use my quads and just my inner thigh muscles for the developpes.”
A: “…Always remember, your developpes and grand battements both initiate from the backs on the legs (glutes). So during all your ballet classes, try to feel each movement initiating from the glutes as this will help to stop using your quads…”
Ok so yes it’s true that many dancers have trouble activating their adductors, but your goal shouldn’t be to stop using your quads. And FYI, your glutes don’t flex the hip (anatomy speak for ‘lift the leg’), so it’s impossible to use your butt for this movement. Your butt actually stretches as you lift your leg up in front of you (more on that a bit further down this post).
And just check out some more comments under the main Q&A (in particular about the quads “bunching up”. How exactly does one make their muscles bunch up? Is that like an advanced spindle cell compression technique I don’t know about??)
“In ballet when lifting your leg for something like a grande battement, you are not supposed to grip with your quads, you are supposed to push from underneath the leg, more so with the hamstring. This can be quite difficult because our first instinct is to grab with the quad.”
Our first instinct is to “grab with the quad” because one of your quads, the big rectus femoris, was designed to help lift your leg. Again, let it do it’s dang job! The hamstring stretches when you lift your leg up, it does not do the work.
Nichelle from Dance Advantage does a really great job explaining the whole mis-interpreted “lift from underneath” cue HERE. She explains that this cue could just be a poor choice of language as the root of our quad confusion:
‘Note that the language in the phrase I’ve repeated above, “coming from underneath,” could easily be interpreted by students as implying that the muscles underneath the leg (the hamstrings) are responsible or must be used to lift the leg. It seems to me that this may be how the myth of lifting with the hamstrings gets passed along.’
Semantics are a bitch.
This post is to de-demonize the quads.
In fact, in the majority of dancers I work with, their quads are pretty dang weak. Sorry. It’s true.
All your quad aversion might be making you weaker.
For example, I love split squats as a supplemental strengthening exercise for dancers (more info on split squats later in this post). Many dancers I initially work with can only do 5 repetitions with their body weight before having to stop from intense quad burning. Does that sound like a dancer who needs to learn how to use their quads better?
And just a note, even though we’re focusing on the quads for this particular post, remember that it’s not productive to isolate one muscle group under a laser, but rather I encourage you to look at how it’s functioning in context of whole body movement.
That said, welcome to quad city.
WHAT DO THE QUADS DO?
Lets talk about quad function.
There are 4 quads—–>
All of them straighten your knee.
Only one of them straightens your knee all the way (vastus medialis).
Only one of them also flexes the hip (rectus femoris).
Main quadriceps group functions: Knee extension + hip flexion. Aka anything that lifts your leg up above 90 degrees with your knee straight. That’s, like, a lot of stuff you do in dance…
The rectus femoris in particular is the quad muscle that lifts your leg up in hip flexion. Because it crosses two joints- the hip AND the knee- it is more common for this muscle to be inhibited, or weak, because it is bigger and has more responsibilities.
Here are some other important muscles that help to flex the hip in a developpe:
Adductors pectineus and magnus
Tensor fasciae latae (TFL)
Rectus femoris is the only hip flexor also responsible for keeping the knee straight. Because of it’s dual function, if it gets weak, any of the other hip flexors on that list could get over-used and tight.
Got tight hips? Maybe your quads are weak…
Or maybe one of the four quads is weaker than the other 3, and this imbalance itself makes your quads feel sore and “grippy”.
So to stretch or to strengthen- It’s not always a simple answer.
DISCLAIMER: I’m not an expert at teaching dance technique and I’m not a ballet teacher. What I do quite well, however is provide dancers with supplementary exercises to help them experience their bodies in new ways that will automatically help them perform their dance techniques better.
So I’ll share some of my more quad-related nuggets with you today.
It’s not so simple as “foam roll and stretch your quads”, or “strengthen your quads with lunges”. Re-training your quads for optimal function is movement pattern dependent, meaning your quads might quite strong doing one thing, but soft as sh!t at another movement pattern.
I hope today to show you a few examples of different ways that I’ve worked with dancers on their quad needs.
SHOULD YOU STRETCH YOUR TIGHT, OVERWORKING QUADS?
Most of the time, no.
Try first asking “why are they tight?” because “they need to be stretched” is rarely the answer.
Like I mentioned earlier, it’s important to not just to stretch or strengthen the quads looking at them under a laser beam, in isolation. You have to look at whole body movement, and how and when the quads are working (or not) within that pattern.
Maybe your quads feel tight because they’re under-working and you need to stop stretching them… A viable possibility. A very similar thing happens with excessive hamstring stretching.
IMPROVE ALIGNMENT FOR OPTIMAL QUAD FUNCTION
Here’s what I see most often: A dancer who doesn’t have awareness of the position of their pelvis or spine or knees or feet during a given movement affecting how the quads (and other muscles, of course) are recruited.
Like the example of the split squat earlier, when a dancer learns where their pelvis should be in space during this exercise, it changes how it feels big time, and they go from being able to do 20 down to 5.
Another common example: Stiff feet and ankles can affect how the quads activate. Will just stretching the quads change how the foot functions? Probably not on its own, because the way your feet interact with the floor influence how things above them work.
And often hamstrings that hold too much protective tension (from overstretching, perhaps?) can prevent the quads from functioning properly. Trust me, all the hamstring stretching I did didn’t help me one bit to straighten my legs fully.
Stretching a muscle without working to improve the position of your bones- feet, pelvis, whatever- they are reacting to won’t change anything. It’ll just make that muscle feel kind of tight.
There are so many possibilities, and we all have our own unique story. I’ll share my own experience, and maybe you can relate.
MY QUAD CONUNDRUM
An n=1 example.
I’m a clear case of quads not functioning optimally because I never seem to be able to straighten my knees all the way while lifting my leg up. I got the “straighten your knees” correction a lot. Made me think, “dang, my quads are all grippy I should stretch them more”.
POP QUIZ: Which muscles straighten the knee and lift your leg? (you should know this by now…)
However, if I lie on my stomach and try to pull my heels to my butt to stretch my quads, I can’t get them all the way there. And I don’t feel a quad stretch despite the clear stiffness.
So which is it? Are my quads weak because I can’t straighten my knee? Or are they tight and need stretching because I can’t get my heels to my butt?
Should I stretch or should I strengthen?
The answer is kind of both, but mostly WORK ON ALIGNMENT. Which of course you couldn’t know without looking at me in person (this is why I can’t give you specific advice over the internet, guys!).
Remember your quads don’t work in isolation. They do what they do because of what’s happening above and below- The ankles, knees, pelvis, and spine.
In my case, mobilizing my hips and feet, and repositioning my pelvis helped me to feel better quad recruitment, and as a result of muscles doing their jobs properly and not needing to hold as much tension, I can get my heels closer to my butt, too.
I’ve seen this with several of my clients as well. Sometimes activating the quads will help them to release tension elsewhere that is preventing them from lengthening. Yes, activating the quads can release tension from the hips.
So yeah… It’s not as simple as stretch this, strengthen that.
Like many of my blog posts, you’ll probably have more questions than answers at this point. But that’s ok! I really do want you to think and ask questions. Don’t believe everything you think you know.
HOW TO OPTIMIZE QUAD FUNCTION FOR BETTER STRENGTH & EXTENSIBILITY
Strength meaning, you can activate them at the right time, generate enough force to lift your leg as high as you want, and protect your knees from exploding?
Extensibility meaning that because they activate at the right time, harmoniously with other muscles with similar and opposite functions, they can lengthen further because they don’t hold the excess tension that a poorly coordinated movement pattern tends to accumulate.
If movements like plies, squats, lunges, hip bridges and even back-bends cause discomfort in your hips, lower back, or knees, could be sign your quads need some lovin’.
I’m going to suggest that the supplemental work you do to help re-train your quads should include movements and positions you don’t into very often in dance.
In this exercise you must stand with both legs parallel (internal rotation), and as narrow as you can manage (adducted). The back leg (extended hip) is the “working” leg, that you’ll be focusing on straightening while it is in extension behind you.
All you have to do is breathe. Put one hand on your back, one on your stomach, or even put your hands on the sides of your ribs. As you inhale, expand into your hands. As you exhale, get all the air out. Aim for a 3 times as long exhale to inhale. Exhale so much that you give yourself no choice but to inhale. Try to keep your butt relaxed.
As you do this, you may notice that the position of your pelvis changes subtly. As you keep your awareness on your back leg straightening, you may notice your hip, calf, or ankle stretching, and your quad starting to burn. Good. Keep going. Keep breathing. Go until that quad burn becomes too intense. I don’t know how long this will take you.
Go for a little walk around. How does it feel to have awoken your quad and reposition your pelvis with your breath and focused awareness? Probably kind of lopsided, but loose in the hip and awesome. Do the other side now.
From here, some exercises to strengthen your quads and improve alignment include:
Try these out, and see how your new positionally stronger quads feel in dance.
One client asked me once, how do these exercises transfer into dance?
Think of it this way- You were a human first, and a dancer second. Make the human stronger, and the dancer will be too.
Also, take a look at the performance pyramid below.
Many dancers specialize so early and start dancing as young as 2, and so never got the functional movement, or general physical preparation part. Our performance pyramids are all upside-down!
By re-balancing our bodies to be good a general movement first, and then layering back on the performance, and THEN specific skill (arabesques and stuff), you’ll definitely notice a difference.
You’ll also be a lot more durable and won’t have to worry about your knees while you dance.
But you don’t have to agree with me or believe me. Just give the advice and exercises a try for yourself. Try strengthening your quads rather than stretching them. I think you’ll notice a huge difference in your alignment, your movement, mobility and strength, and how your body feels on a daily basis.
Let me know what you think in the comments below. How did these exercises work for you? And if you’re a life-long quad-stretcher, let me know how it feels, perhaps, to stop stretching them, and work on strength instead.
And if you want more exercises and ideas like the ones in this post, then you’re going to LOVE Dance Stronger. Dance Stronger is a book and 4 week training program designed to get you stronger for dance (duh).
The exercises in this post are actually directly from the program (these are the reject videos, because of the bad sound quality, sorry!), but to get a full understanding of how to integrate them into your dance cross-training, you’ll have to join the full program, which is available 100% by donation!
I think you’ll really love it.
And if you loved this post (or if you hated it) please let me know in the comments below, and share with a friend. Let’s stop the quad fear, together.
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):
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
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.
Today I’m going to share an excerpt from the warm-up chapter of Dance Stronger.
Dance Stronger is a 4 week training program for dancers, a 150 page Ebook, and a supportive community full of kick-ass dancers.
I want to share a key idea with you from the warm-up chapter that I think is essential for a successful warm-up.
It’s not fancy. It’s not sexy. It’s a growth mindest.
Here’s an excerpt from the warm-up chapter of the new Dance Stronger book/program:
Change Your Warm-Up Mindset, Prevent Injuries, Dance Better
If you want the truth about how I used to warm-up for dance through the majority of my dance career (which I will refer to as “back then”), it’s that I didn’t care about warming up, nor did I care to learn. I felt invincible.
“Back then”, warm-up was always stressed by teachers as important and I knew at the time that I should be doing it better. The problem was we weren’t ever shown HOW.
“Don’t just sit there, you should be warming up!” is not helpful guidance.
Much like being told “don’t forget to breathe!”, “make sure you warm-up!”, was a common plea from my dance teachers. To do our own warm-up before class was expected of us despite being given zero guidance on how and no explanation of why.
So, my “warm-up” generally went something like this:
1. Sit in the splits for at least a few minutes in each direction. Maybe over-splits if I felt like showing off. I also liked to throw in a nice long hamstring stretch for good measure.
2. Stretch out the top of my foot, or rather, crush it into a more pointed position. Sometimes I got a strong friend to stretch my feet for me. I never had a foot-stretcher, but you can bet I would have used one excessively.
3. Rub some Tiger Balm on my sore spots. Tiger Balm was my warm-up in a can.
4. Pop my hips. If I didn’t get a decent cavitation, I felt that I wouldn’t be able to get my leg as high. This took some playing around with different positions until I got the right “pop”.
5. Maybe throw in some leg swings. Maybe.
6. Sometimes I did some “abs” (which was more like lying on the floor moving around my arms and legs).
Self-portrait. Monika, age 22.
This warm-up was also the exact warm-up (minus the leg-swings and abs) I performed the day I injured my hamstring in a Jazz warm-up- Not even the meat of the class!
I just couldn’t be bothered to warm-up. I didn’t know how. I didn’t care.
Sadly, this warm-up is quite common. Why? I believe it is because we see warming up as a chore, and to make warming up for dance more effective we first need to change how we perceive it.
As I mentioned above, I injured myself during a dance warm-up. But wait, isn’t warm-up supposed to help you prevent injuries? And you definitely shouldn’t get hurt WHILE warming up, right?
What if I told you that you might need to warm-up for your dance warm-up? Would you think that was excessive?
Because of the unique demands of a dance-specific warm-up (i.e. the warming-up portion of a dance class), I suggest that dancers should be doing a general warm-up or, movement preparation, before even starting the dance warm-up.
A general movement prep is exactly what it sounds like- It prepares your body for movement, in general.
The dance specific warm-up (ballet barre, Jazz center warm-up, Graham warm-up, etc) is to prepare you for the dance-specific movement that will happen in class, rehearsal, or performance.
The point of a general movement preparation is to prepare your body for the fundamental movements it struggles with so that they can be better integrated into your dancing.
If you can’t write the individual letters of the alphabet, how do you expect to write complex sentences with fancy words and sophisticated punctuation?
What is the goal of warming up?
While you may read in other resources that the primary goal of warming-up is to prevent injuries, I want you to consider that this could be holding you back.
Is it possible that by simply shifting your warm-up mindset you could get much more out of it? I believe so.
Stop worrying about injury prevention, and you’ll free yourself from injuries.
That sounds a bit crazy, I know.
Here’s why injury prevention as your primary warm-up goal doesn’t work: Injury prevention isn’t tangible and immediately appreciable.
Injury prevention isn’t easily seen as a process.
Injury prevention is an idea, something that exists in the future that we’ll never know we have achieved successfully until near the end of our dance careers and we realize that, “Hey, I didn’t majorly injure my back! I don’t need hip replacements! All that injury prevention and warming up must have worked!”.
Injury prevention as the goal for warm-up isn’t motivating because dancers feel invincible and simply don’t care enough. Injury prevention doesn’t give us instant satisfaction. Injury prevention is an idea that we only appreciate after becoming injured.
For this reason, I invite you to drop the injury prevention goal, and choose a different one that instantly rewards you. Don’t worry, you’ll still prevent injuries.
A motivating goal is one that makes you want to warm-up rather than makes you see it as a chore, and must be one that is tangibly achievable, short and long-term, and focuses on the process not the final destination.
The movements you choose to do in a warm-up must make you feel good. You must be able to notice a difference in how you feel during and after your warm-up in order to want to warm-up every time before you dance, and before a training session.
You’re allowed to enjoy warming up.
Since I started thinking about warming-up as a pleasurable, somatic experience rather than as a chore, my efforts to warm-up have become more consistent and thus my progress in training more linear, and my chronic pain flare-ups more rare.
Your warm-up should make you feel perceptibly different. Not just warm, but more “present” in your body. More reflexive. More intuitive. More genuine.
And when your movement is more genuine, and less strained, you will not become injured.
Because of the ease and enjoyment dancing brings you, dance will reduce your stress, rather than creating more of it. This idea, to me, should be considered as much a part of the global injury prevention solution as the evidence-based factors proven in studies.
So I hope you can begin to think of warming up as less of a chore and more of an exploration, a healing practice, and a pleasure, knowing how good it can make you feel both during and afterwards.
Focus on the process, not the final destination. Enjoy the journey, because the time of arrival at is at this point in your life, inconceivable.
It is after all the sides of the mountains that sustain the most life, not the peaks.
There’s stretching, and then there’s productive stretching. I now only refer to the stretching I do in sessions with my dancers as “productive stretching”.
Mere stretching is unacceptable. My clients deserve better than simply to stretch, and so do you! Why choose to do only a “thing” (to stretch) over an activity with legitimate, progressive returns (a productive stretch)?
Which would you rather choose: Productivity, the act of actually accomplishing something worthwhile. Or, doing stuff for just for the sake of doing stuff.
As much as I like just doing stuff, I came to the conclusion last year that being productive and my happiness level have a direct correlation. It turns out productivity isn’t such a bummer, and I actually like getting stuff done.
Case in point: Only do productive stretching.
By my above definition of productivity as being the act of actually accomplishing something worthwhile, productive stretching therefore refers to stretching that actually accomplishes something worthwhile: An increase in tissue length and/or desired improvement in joint range of motion and/or changes a neuromuscular pattern of moving in a way that improves execution of important movements and skills, AND can reduce the risk of injury or relieve chronic pain. That’s a very important AND.
In other words, flexibility that will help you dance better and not hurt you.
Does this look productive?
Will it make you more flexible? Yeah maybe… But only up until you need hip replacements at the ripe old age of 27. My iliofemoral ligaments hurt just looking at this picture.
Will getting sat on improve motor control, dynamic stability, and help you dance pain-free while preventing injuries? Heck no.
Please don’t do crazy stuff like that. Don’t let your coach sit on you. If not for yourself, do it for me! Because I CARE ABOUT YOU!
It’s funny, I hardly ever stretch with my dancers at all, and when I do, it is generally limited to some mobility or motor control drills, some dynamic stretching to warm up, and I must admit I’m a huge fan of yoga slow-flows and their ability to set your ass on fire while improving range of motion, strength, and building new motor pathways.
Like I wrote about HERE, simply doing common stretches, like lunges to release your hip flexors aren’t that productive. In the case of the pelvis, active mobilization is a better strategy to improve alignment and help with “tightness”. By this I mean using your own muscles to move your bones into a new alignment, and then chill out there and take some deep breaths, which teaches your body to remember that position, increasing the likelihood you’ll actually keep some of that alignment while you’re up walking around, dancing, and carrying your too-heavy bag in one hand, Starbucks cup in the other.
In a nutshell, if you’re already flexible, perhaps well into a degree of being pathologically lax in the ligaments (although I really hate that “p” word) then there are better things you can do with your supplemental training time than stretch more. By simply doing more and longer durations of stretching, a few undersirable things could happen:
Muscle becomes overstretched and weak, unable to activate at the right times
Joint position becomes altered (ostekinematic changes), causing things to rub together and hurt (labrums, bursae, tendons, etc)
Altered motor control around that joint due to ligament and muscle overstretching
Muscles around that joint tighten up in an attempt to guard the overstretched joint
Overstretching of joint capsule and ligaments (again, causing guarding and feeling of tightness around the joint).
In fact, these days I say, “If it feels tight, DON’T stretch it!”.
So what should you do instead? Try these exercises that serve as mobility drills that can help you to improve joint range of motion as well as training good movement patterns into your system that will allow your joints to stop guarding themselves against the overstretching you might be dishing out (oh your poor ligaments…).
1) For your quads and hip flexors:
Half kneeling is one of my favourite drills and positions. Your goal is to get a stretch for your quads and hip flexors while at the same time you’ll probably feel them burn from activation (along with your butt and hamstrings, hopefully).
Things to consider:
Both knees should be at a 90 degree angle
Make stance as narrow as possible within a reasonable level of challenge
Lift front foot to make sure your weight is not shifted forward onto the front leg. Recheck throughout to make sure you have not drifted forward.
Feel maximal stretch possible on front of supporting hip by pressing your knee through the floor, slightly thrusting hip forward, and trying to feel as much space in the hip as possible (like you’re hovering off the floor)
Turn head side to side to check balance
Breathe with the intention of 360 expansion, directing the breath low, below your bellybutton
2) More fun for hip flexors, and some calves, too.
I know- You have tight hip flexors and calves all the dang time. You can kill two birds with one stone and do some split stance breathing. It doesn’t look like much, but this drill (inspired by Anatomy in Motion), when done with awareness of the breath (<– super duper important), can be a really awesome stretch for your calves, hip flexors, and can help with pelvic alignment.
Things to consider:
Split stance with feet parallel (don’t let that pesky back foot turn out), as wide or narrow as needed
Check in with breathing- Can you breathe low below bellybutton, 360 degree expansion, with full exhalations letting your ribs drop down to hip bones?
On an exhale, rotate tailbone through your legs (like a sad dog) to bring pelvis forward, leading the lunge. Front knee can bend a little, back leg stays straight.
Keep back heel down and knee straight as much as possible
You may feel stretch in calf and/or trailing leg hip, or even inner thigh.
3) For your lower back (if you have a large lordotic curve like me!)
The lower back muscles often become hypertonic, and very overdevelopped, appearing visually hypertrophied (big and sausage-y). However this is not always the case- Some of us are the opposite, so don’t assume that you need to release your lower back because it’s possible you need to get MORE ability to extend your lower back.
You must be careful, very very careful, when stretching the lumbar spine area. Too much stress too soon will hurt your vertebrae, and rather than improving the length of the muscles you might increase their stiffness due to the additional stress and weird forces on the vertebrae and disks themselves. You don’t want that.
The following 2 videos aren’t technically “stretches”, but are re-positioning/motor control/breathing/core (whatever you wanna call it!) exercises which I have found to be productive in helping to release tension from the lumbar spine erectors.
Things to consider:
I stole this exercise from the Postural Restoration Institute. This one helps to release the lumbar erectors while activating the abdominals, hamstrings and adductors, and making you breathe a lot (which is a good thing).
Push feet into wall and pull heels down.
Lift tailbone slightly off the floor by pressing knees up.
Breathe, trying again to expand all around like a balloon, and try to extend your exhalation to being 3 times as long as you inhale (getting all your air out), and letting the ribs drop down to your hip bones.
You should feel this one in your hamstrings and inner thighs and a bit of core, as well as a release for your lower bacl. If you don’t, keep practicing. Same goes if you feel your quads tense up (hint, your quads should stay unclenched)- Keep practicing!
Things to consider:
Another PRI exercise to actively release the lumbar erectors.
You are trying to maintain contact with your mid and lower back (from about bra level to tailbone). Really round your lower back.
Same cues as the 90/90 hip lift, but now up on your feet! Breathe, round into the wall, reach your arms.
4) For your abs and butt.
Yes, just because you want to tone and tighten your abs and butt doesn’t mean that they don’t need to learn how to lengthen too! Can you produce force with a sling-shot if you haven’t stretched it back as far as it can go first? Nope. By the same token, you need to be able to feel your muscles stretch to use them. Abs and glutes included.
This is one that is inspired by Dynamic Neuromuscular Stabilization (DNS). In this sidelying reachy exercise (that one of my clients has adorably named the “Starfishy Sideplank”), your goal is to find a stretch for your abs and the bottom glute (among other fun possibilities of muscle-feels).
Things to consider:
Lying on side, propped up on elbow, legs in a 90 degrees lunge-type position- bottom leg forward, top leg back
Ensure supporting elbow is directly beneath shoulder
Press palm and forearm into the floor, rolling it inwards (pronate arm), keeping as much space between ear and shoulder as possible
Check in with breathing
Reach forward as far as possible with front arm, hold for a breath
Lift hips off floor if possible, hold for a breath
May feel stretching across back hip, bottom leg glute, upper back/shoulder, ribcage/abdomen, lower back, etc
If you want to learn more exercises like these check out Dance Stronger– My latest creation. Dance Stronger is a multimedia guide for dancers who want to get the tools to help them improve their dancing, prevent injuries, and reduce pain by, you guessed it, getting stronger! Click here to get more info.
You can also sign up and see the first two chapters for free (click the image below! DO IT!).
In any case, I’d love for you to try the “stretches” in this post out for yourself and see how they feel. Can you feel the stretches? It might be a little trickier because these are stretches that take a bit of conscious effort to find, not splat stretches where you get sat on.
I hope this was helpful. From now on you must only stretch productively. Deal?
I’m going to rant just a little bit about something that frustrates me. Namely, dance fitness is not the same as “fitness for dancers”.
And it seems like a lot of people just don’t seem to get the F**cking diff.
The photo was taken in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where I was recently studying Thai massage. Gotta love Asia.
I feel that I have permission to rant because I have much more to contribute that I do to complain about. The rule: Ranting is not warranted unless you have something actionable and useful to follow up with.
Do dancers need to be more “fit”?
I’m kind of tired of answering this question, so I’ll let Sonia Rafferty do it:
“Studies have shown that performing dance in itself elicits only limited stimuli for positive fitness adaptations; professional dancers often demonstrate fitness values similar to those obtained from healthy sedentary individuals of comparable age.” (Rafferty, 2010)
“While technique classes focus on neuro-muscular coordination, the length of a traditional class may not be adequate to meet all of the dancer’s conditioning needs. The amount of space available, the numbers of students, and the time required for teaching and correcting also have an impact on work rate… Therefore, conditioning work over and above daily technique class has been recommended.“ (Rafferty, 2010)
What she said.
Unfortunately, some (the majority of, I’d say) dancers just don’t seem to get it because the message doesn’t reach them. As such, dancers end up wasting their time on well-intentioned exercises routines that aren’t serving them, just plain dancing too much and not resting, or, as will be the topic today, using dance-fitness as a means of cross-training.
“Dance for fitness” vs. “dancers getting more fit”
Dance fitness, as defined by Monika-pedia, is an exercise form for the general public who want to “get fit” by “working the same muscles dancers use” while completely separating the art from dancing, reducing it to a means to a vain end. Many people find the idea of using dance-like movements to get fit appealing because they can pretend they aren’t actually exercising while they get sweaty and burn calories, and might even be convinced that they are learning how to dance.
(Monika-pedia does not care about your feelings and is a rather sarcastic source).
The truth is, if you are serious about actually improving your fitness and movement mechanics to excel at dance, “dance fitness” is the last thing you should be doing.
I’m talking about the likes of Zumba, Barre Fitness, and Jazzercise, which are great for people who, if they weren’t at the class, would be sitting on the couch eating Tim Tams.
That said, if you find something that gets you moving, you get desirous results from it, and you love it, then who am I to tell you to do otherwise?
But keep your goals in mind, and make sure your actions are congruent with them.
If you are a dancer and you are spending your precious, limited time participating in dance fitness classes, thinking you’re cross-training, you’re failing at your goal and wasting your time.
If you are a classically trained ballet dancer, and you take barre fitness to work-out… Please tell me you can see what isn’t working about that sentence.
And then there are people who use dance fitness to get a “dancer’s body”. In barre fitness classes, and the Ballet Beautiful program, for example, you don’t learn how to do ballet technique, but you replicate moves that make it look like you’re doing something ballet-like, stripping it of the artistry that actually makes ballet beautiful, hoping it will help you to develop “long lean muscles” that ballet dancers have.
To make a muscle longer requires that the bone also becomes longer, stretching won’t accomplish this.
You’ll have to get Gattaca on your femur if you want longer thigh muscles.
And to make a muscle “leaner” requires wasting of the tissues through disuse and caloric deficit, something a particular style of exercise can’t do, no matter what the claim may be.
To make a muscle “bulky”, aka increase in size, requires intentionally training with high repetitions, high volume, and moderate intensity (like a body-builder would choose), while eating heaps of protein and carbohydrates to create a caloric surplus (more in than out). In dance the stimulus to the muscles is not at all sufficient to create extreme hypertrophy (aka “bulk”), but it is enough to create hypertonicity. If ballet does make ballet dancers bulky, then we would probably see more bulky ballerinas.
Whether a dancer develops larger muscles is influenced strongly by genetics, and other forms of training they have done prior to, or in conjunction with their dancing. Misinforming dancers these truths often does more harm than good and can lead to feelings of shame about their bodies, which, along with other negative emotional experiences, research is correlating with injury risk and inability to cope with injury.
And if you think that having muscle or lifting weights will make you less flexible, just fast forward to 3:30 and check out my friend Renaldo being a badass:
But wait! How can he do the splits with all that bulk? His muscles must be long and lean enough… Actually, Renaldo’s a tall dude, so his muscles ARE pretty long. And he doesn’t have much body fat, does he, so he IS lean. Do you nomesayin’?
What’s the point, Monika?
As a dancer, and if you are serious about becoming the best dancer you can be, you should be informed and choose critically the methods you are using to cross-train. The hours you have available to participate in something other than dancing are limited, use them intelligently. Chances are if you’re using a barre class to keep “in shape”, that hour and a half could be better used recovering with a nap. I’m 100% serious about that.
What should you do to cross train? I can’t tell you exactly what, nor do I want to. Every dancer is a human with unique needs. Get assessed. Identify your individual limiting factors and address them. Too, every dance style has different physical requirements that should be considered and trained outside regular class time.
Please don’t misconstrue fitness for dancers as dance fitness, as the two are completely different.
When is it ok to do dance fitness classes? If you meet the following criteria, it’s probably reasonable to participate in a dance fitness class:
You are you a regular person who doesn’t dance seriously or as a career choice
You just want to move around a bit and work up a sweat
You think the idea of dance is nice, definitely more appealing that jogging
Don’t have any goals in particular, or they are vague, like, you just want to get “in shape” and “tone up”
You don’t care much about getting stronger, developing muscle, being athletic, or dead-lifting mad weight
You aren’t worried about improving your efficiency and quality of movement, because ain’t nobody got time for that, you just want to sweat and feel the burn.
Be my guest and Zumba yourself silly.
As for the rest of you…
Well, I can’t tell you what to do. But I can steer you in the direction of a resource that I created (shameless plug warning). I’ll leave you with my recommendation to check out Dance Stronger, a multi-media resource (ebook + online program) I created with the goal of sharing a philosophy and method for using supplementary training to support your dancing.
For now, it is still available by donation, making it a bargain compared to that over-priced barre class.