This post is dedicated to those of you who are as engrossed in Thomas Myers’ Anatomy Trains theory as I am. If that’s even possible.
For those of you who haven’t yet heard of this “anatomy trains” thing, here’s my attempt to summarize (a fool’s task, I know).
Myers’ concept, which he was able to prove through cadaver dissection (yum), is that the body is intricately connected through myofascial lines. In other words, muscles are connected to other muscles and internal structures through a bunch of sticky connective tissue called fascia. Hence, myofascial meridians.
These lines are actually able to be dissected, though painstakingly, from the body. Imagine having pain in your neck, and by using this theory, to be able to understand how it could be traced to another area of the body by following these lines.
Just being able to of think about my own body, and the bodies of others, in this new framework has brought my postural O.C.D to a new level. And by the way, yesterday, two people told me I had good posture, and it made my day. Just sayin’. Those of you who know me well, know that posture is very important to me.
It’s also interesting how these “trains” of fascia are similar to Chinese Meridian Lines, or the Sen Lines of Thai Yoga Massage (which I practice). These are referred to as “energy lines”, but the Myers’ myofascial meridians are indeed “energy lines” in themselves, as fascia conducts an electric current. And so, if there are adhesion in one area of our myofacsial being, it can disrupt this flow of electricity (or energy) to other areas of the body, influencing it’s function.
sen line kalathari
Note the interesting similarities between the sen line Kalathari, and Myers’ spiral line, above.
And consider that the Chinese and Thai people knew this long before we were able to dissect the individual lines from the body. My ability to (kind of) understand both Myers’ concept of “trains of fascia”, in terms of their functional anatomy, and also the Sen lines of thai massage, in spiritual and metaphysical terms, kind of blows my mind daily.
Of all the lines in the Anatomy Trains theory, the deep front line (DFL) could very well be the most important line for dancers. The deep front line connects the body from the flexors of the toes, up through the deep posterior compartment of the calves, through the adductors, into the iliopsoas and QL and transverse abdominis, to the diaphragm, the heart and lungs, and up into the facial muscles and the tongue.
the deep front line, connecting us from toes to tongue.
When I first read the DFL chapter in Anatomy Trains, it didn’t seem particularly fascinating to me. It wasn’t until I watched the video footage of the fresh tissue and embalmed cadaver dissection of the deep front line that I took a double take at it. And then, after watching Ryerson’s student performance, “Choreographic Works”, I took a triple take, and a few lightbulbs turned on. Yeah. More than one light bulb.
By the way, if you are following my Dance Stronger online training program, the dancer you see in the videos, Sam, was in the show last night. And she freakin’ killed it. But anyway.
The deepest line of our bodies, the DFL connects the articulation of our feet with the ground to our facial expressions. It allows our visceral self to interact with the outside world.
Just like pulling the tablecloth out from under neatly set table, you could, in theory (if there wasn’t so much stuff holding us together), pull one’s tongue out and have in your hand a long chain (or train) of myofascia connecting us down to our feet.
Nice mental picture, eh? Kind of reminds me of a certain Itchy and Scratchy cartoon. where Scratchy gets his guts pulled out. I was pretty much raised by The Simpsons.
Consider the expressions, “I had a gut feeling”, or “it took my breath away”. As it turns out, the muscles deep in our abdominal cavity(transverse abdominis, diaphragm, iliopsoas and QL), as well as the heart, are connected fascially to the muscles of our faces.
I’ve never considered that, in terms of functional anatomy, a “gut feeling” and how it can influence our facial expressions, could be explained. Tightening in the abdominals and diaphragm can cause contraction up the chain into your facial muscles, and form what others see as your facial expression- their perception of your state of being.
It makes me think about how peoples’unique facial expressions are developed over time. Have you ever known someone whose smile was a little crooked, or who had one eye that was more expressive than the other? Or how some people seem to have a more animated face, and how some people have a “poker face”?
You can think of someone’s facial expression originating from their feet, where the DFL begins (or ends). How you feel the world through your feet, and how you react to it, through your gut , can influence how the muscles of our face become “toned”.
As a dancer, this can explain why things like pointing your feet, and having that wonderful connection of your feet to the floor can give you a real, visceral feeling through your belly. And it can explain how when a dancer is really moving with her core engaged, that her face just seems to “dance” too.
Have you ever seen a dancer who looked startled, weird, or just had a facial expression that didn’t match the dancing, or what the rest of her body was doing? I have (and I was one of those dancers).
When you are really “feeling” your core working for you, using your breath, and letting this experience travel up and down the line freely, to your face and feet, you are dancing with your whole body- dancing from your toes to your tongue.
It also explains why dancers who never learn how to use their breath seem disjointed. They just don’t look right. Remember, the diaphragm is connected to your abdominals- They work together. An energy blockage (or fascial adhesion) at one point in the line will affect your performance.
To be even more specific, your diaphragm is fascially connected to your psoas major. And when do you need to use your psoas major? Oh, just every time you want to lift your leg above 90 degrees…
Now my question is, does this feeling or energy originate from the core, and travel up and down the line to the feet and face? OR does the energy originate in your feet, and how you feel the world with your toes, and travel up to your face and tongue? Probably a little bit of both. Especially as a dancer, for whom the foot is an expressive part of the body.
I’ve even had a dance teacher ask us to think of our feet as a “tongue licking the floor”. That image doesn’t seem so weird anymore…
But the point is that a dancer who’s body is integrated structurally, and who has full body awareness (be it of Anatomy Trains theory or not), will have fewer energy blockages along this line, and will be able to feel the free flow of energy, and emotion from feet, to core, to face, and with their breath coordinated with their movement.
This dancer will dance with not only her body, but her visceral being– from the inside out, from toes to tongue. This dancer will appear charismatic, expressive, and more interesting to watch. Her movement will be stronger, more stable, more fluid. This dancer will have better balance and control, because she will be dancing using her core muscles. You will want to be this dancer.
Also kind of explains how when I get excited about something I wiggle my toes and smile and feel all tight in my belly and chest.
I just blew my own mind. The deep front line- The line of physical-emotional expression. Thanks Tom.
PS, you have no idea how many times I mixed up “facial” and “fascial” while writing this.
A little while back, Bizz Varty wrote an awesome two-part article for me on the topic of the sacroiliac joint- That fun little joint where your sacrum and ilium meet.
Though it’s a topic that’s already been given some deserved attention, I feel as if it’s time to touch on it again (though I’m no SI joint whisperer, like Bizz claims to be). And if you’re reading this, Bizz, I’m still waiting for my magical SIJ adjustment ;).
There are a couple of reasons that I’m dedicating another post to the SIJ:
1) Bizz’s original SI joint article continues to be one of the most popular ones on my site. I’ve even had some readers email me out of the blue asking what they can do about their SI joint issues after having read Bizz’s SIJ saga. Clearly, this is something people want to know more about, and who am I to deny the people what they want??
2) I recently took an online seminar, presented by Rick Kaselj, and learned a bunch of cool stuff about SIJ pain, and exercises to eliminate said pain. I’ll be quoting a lot fun facts I learned from his presentation. Rick is a super smart guy, an I can honestly say I wouldn’t know half of what I know today if it weren’t for him and the great information he makes available to industry professionals like myself.
3) My SIJ has been bothering me for about a month now, and I know exactly why, and I’m going to share it with you, and what I’m doing to help it.
4) All the dancers I’ve worked with recently seem to have at least one funky SIJ. And it’s usually their right one.
So here we go! Here’s to hoping I can live up to Bizz’s glory. I’ve got some big shoes to fill. She did a really good job outlining the anatomy stuff in her article, so I’m not going to re-hash it all. And if you haven’t read it yet, CLICK HERE and then HERE. Seriously, it’s about time.
As I mentioned, I have been dealing with a bit of a cranky SI joint lately. I have a couple of educated guesses as to why:
1) I have been training harder and heavier than usual.
2) I have been sitting at my computer more than usual.
3) I have been paying less attention to my pelvic alignment.
4) I have stopped doing nearly all extra core training.
5) I’m probably more stressed than I realize.
6) I am a woman.
In case you didn’t know, women are more susceptible to SIJ pain than men. This is because of that thing called child birth. Remember that thing? The ligaments that stabilize the SIJ are more lax in women so that we can do that child birth thing one day. Less stability= more susceptibility to getting hurt.
Women also naturally have a higher degree of anterior pelvic tilt than men, which puts more stress on the SI joint. This is why paying close attention to alignment and doing an appropriate amount of core training is essential for us ladies, and especially dancer ladies.
Why is SI joint pain and dysfunction such a big deal?
Well, it hurts, so that sucks. But our SIJ’s have a pretty important role- To transfer force from the upper extremities to the lower extremities. And the reverse. Force transfer is important for any kind of athlete. Also if you like having fun, playing sports, or tipping cows.
What does SI joint pain/dysfunction usually feel like?
SIJ pain is usually lumped in the broad category of “lower back pain”, and can be characterized by a radiating pain around the lower back and bum area.
Bizz mentions a couple of cool assessments you can do on yourself to determine whether or not your low back pain is coming from the SIJ, so I won’t get too into that. Also, if you have lower back pain, your first move should be to see a professional about it to determine a proper rehabilitation program. That said, one assessment I generally do when working with someone is a little Thai Yoga Massage move called the “hip hop”.
This is Albert (Krishna), one of my Thai Massage teachers, teaching at the Sivananda Yoga Center here in Toronto.
Those Thai were trying really hard to mainstream when they named that one… But anyway, this particular Thai Massage stretch not only feels awesome (because it wiggles the SIJ around), but based on how much movement I can get in the person’s SI joint, I can tell how jammed and unstable it is, and which side is more affected than the other.
In dancers, I’ve noticed that the right side is generally less stable, with less movement and more pain. In my experience, dancers also tend to have more external rotation in their right hip. This is because in dance classes we end up practicing things more on the right side than the left, and so we develop more turnout on the right side, which causes the right piriformis to get super tight, pull on the SIJ, and cause pain.
This leads me to…
What Causes SI Joint Pain?
In Rick’s seminar (who, by the way, knows way too much about every injury), he listed that the SIJ is most commonly injured by:
2) Pregnancy/child birth
4) Repetitive movement
5) Leg length discrepancy
For dancers, and other super active people, the most probable causes are muscle imbalances created by overuse and repetitive movement. I would also add prolonged poor positioning, or shifty alignment, to that list, but this can be lumped under repetitive movement.
The most common muscles associated with SIJ pain are glute med and max, piriformis, quadratus lumborum and biceps femoris. These muscles stabilize the SIJ. When stability is compromised due to an increase of stress on the joint, they tighten up to try to add more stability.
What Can You do About Your SI Joint Pain?
First, stop doing the things that make it hurt, go see a specialist, and get some rest. And then you can start doing some of these things:
1) Find neutral spine. Find it and start walking around in it all day every day. I cannot stress how important alignment is if you like not being in pain all the time! Being in the proper alignment will take stress off the SI joint and strengthen the muscles which stabilize it. Start now. Find neutral spine and use it as often as you can. How?
I like to find neutral spine by using a little trick I stole from Dr. Stuart McGIll: Bend forward about 45 degrees and put your fingers on your low back erectors. They should feel hard and activated*. Begin to bring your back into an upright position, but stop when you feel your lower back muscles first relax. This is neutral for YOUR spine. Now hold onto that position with your pelvis and bring your ribcage back over it if you feel like you’re leaning way forward.
Sam is so awesome for always being my “exercise model”.
I tend to always be in too much anterior pelvic tilt (sway back posture), so being in a neutral pelvic alignment is important for me if I want to be pain-free and happy. Which I do. This trick worked wonders for me and taught me how to properly engage my core, glutes and hammies.
After you’ve mastered finding neutral spine (read, have become obsessive compulsive about using it all freakin’ time), strengthen it! Learn to deadlift with perfect form, and start deadlifing everything from now on.
There is no more “pick up from the ground”. There is only deadlift.
2) Get some core stability. Specifically, learn to activate the transverse abdominus and the deep pelvic floor muscles. Not only do you need strength and endurance in your core, but a little fine motor control don’t hurt either. Your core muscles stabilize your SIJ. More stability is good!
Stable joint=no pain
Unstable joint= pain
Mike Robertson, from Indiana Fitness and Sports Training, wrote an article called Core Training For Smart Folks, which you should now go check out. If you’re smart…
3) Learn proper hip extension. Get a friend to check out your hip extension skillz by doing a simple single leg hip bridge. If you notice that there is significant arching in your lower back, and your chest is rising to your chin, and your bum is still squishy, then you are doing hip extension from all the wrong places.
4) Self Massage. Most of us can’t afford to get weekly massage therapy. Luckily, you can still get a good amount of benefit from self massage You may need to do some self-massage on your problem areas 3 times a day at first, and then reduce the frequency until you’re just maintaining whenever you feel a flare up.
I forget who I heard it from first, but I like the saying, “Doing self massage between massage appointments is like brushing your teeth between seeing the dentist.”
My favourite items to self-massage with**:
Great for hitting the piriformis, glute med and max, lower back, and QL area. If that’s too intense, use a tennis ball, or a less dense rubber ball from the dollar store.
Use it for the above if using a lacrosse ball is too intense. Also for your IT bands and upper back. I’ve never tried it, but I hear you make your own roller out of various other hard objects wrapped in other various softer coverings. Try wrapping an unopened soda bottle, one of those Nalgene bottles, filled with water and frozen, or some PVC piping wrapped with bubble wrap or that non-stick rubbery stuff you put under tablecloths.***
5) Static and dynamic stretches. Perform dynamic stretches for the culprit muscle(s) before you do any kind of moving for the day, and static stretches after you’re done your day’s work.
Dancers be careful with your hamstring stretching! Many people have tight hamstrings as a result of SI joint pain, but dancers actually have pretty darn flexible hamstrings, and seem to be obsessed with stretching them. In my experience, dancers can benefit a lot more from strengthening the hamstrings than stretching them more, as they are one of the more common dance injuries. One that is close to my heart, so to speak.
6) Improve thoracic mobility. If you only move from one point in your spine (probably the lower part), then all the stress will accumulate at that point. If you can learn to move from multiple points on your spine, the stress will be more evenly distributed.
And that’s all she wrote.
For more on exercises and strategies for developing strength and changing the way you move, check out my resource, Dance Stronger.
*Yes I realize I just used the words ‘hard’ and ‘erectors’, almost in the same sentence. Sue me.
**Sue me, again…
*** If anyone tries to make their own foam roller, I want to see a picture of it! Success or fail.
For the dancer and the strength training enthusiast, the term “pull-up” has entirely different definitions.
Also, “pull-up” means something vastly different to the cross-fitter than it does to the strength training camp.
And for those who think that kipping doesn’t have to stop at pull-ups, why not “kip” everything!!?
But as much as kipping squats makes me laugh, let me get back to the point at hand.
What the hell does it mean to “pull-up” in dance class?? Has your ballet teacher ever yelled at you to “pull up”? Yeah, mine too.
Pulling up is something that I could never figure out. I knew it had something to do with engaging my core muscles, and trying to get taller, but I just couldn’t find an image that worked for me. Not until I started heavy squatting anyway… And then it became abundantly clear.
Now I always tout that deadlifts are the ultimate exercise for dancers to to teach them how to engage their glutes, and find neutral spine and a lot of other really great things. Actually I dedicated an entire post to the deadlift a while back.
However it wasn’t until recently that I realized what the squat brought to the table in terms of teaching the dancer an “old trick” in a new setting. This re-learning of dance concepts through weightlifting is something I think is essential if you have reached a plateau in your technique, and need something to bring you to the next level.
Enter, Le Squat.
Heavy squats taught me to “pull-up”
Like I said before, I knew that pulling up had something to do with my abdominals and lengthening my spine, but in a dance class, you can sneak your way through without necessarily pulling up the whole time. Sure, you won’t do exceptionally well- You’ll probably fall off your balance more often than not, and you won’t be terribly pleased with yourself. But you’ll make it out alive. It’s not like you’ll get crushed under a heavy iron bar that weighs more than you.
When you put a loaded, heavy-ass barbell on your back, engaging your abdominals is non negotiable- If you don’t “pull-up” as you go down, you WILL get hurt.
This is one of the reasons that the squat is a great learning experience for a dancer. As you are performing the eccentric (descending) portion of the squat, you will learn very quickly, by necessity, what it means to pull up through your abdominals. You need to “go up as you go down”- Brace the abdominals, and try to put more space between your individual vertebrae to try to resist the weight of the barbell crunching your spine. On the way up, you need to hold onto that feeling, but with even more power, because now you’re also fighting gravity. Ohhh that gravity.
Here’s a video of me squatting yesterday (and by the way, 150lbs 4 times is a personal best for me. Just sayin’, I’m pretty pleased). If you have a keen eye, you can kind of see how as I descend before each rep, I “pull-up”, just like I would need to in ballet class if I were doing a plie, for example. A really, really heavy plie…
Also a pretty sweet song in the background. One of my favorite Chili Peppers tunes, from in my opinion, one if their better albums.
There ya have it. Deadlifting is awesome for dancers, but so are squats.
If you’d like to learn more about deadlifting and squat technique, and how to prepare your body for it, check out my resource, Dance Stronger.
I have some sad news. As some of you know, I have, for the past several months, been working towards a 225lb deadlift, with the goal being to pull it by Halloween. In a ninja costume. Just kidding…
Just last week it looked like I might even be able to accomplish this feat BEFORE my goal time-frame. But that was last week, and as we know, all things are flux… Life happens. Shit happens.
Yep. Shit happens. I had a rather embarrassing bike incident (I fell off, going about 0 kmph. I’m really graceful). As a result, my ribs have taken a beating. How I managed this going at a near 0 speed? I have no clue. It was rainy. And my bike only has one pedal. Also, my instincts told me to protect the bike, and thus, I used my body to cushion it, rather than save myself. And I did a good job of it too!
As a result, it’s hard to breathe deeply, and getting up and down is especially painful. I’m also starting to get weird spasms in my back and abdominals. Needless to say, heavy deadlifts are probably NOT a good idea, as even walking sends shooting pains through my rib-cage..
Sigh… 225 you will be mine soon. For now, I’ll just have to enjoy the break.
But anyway. What I really want to talk about, is something that is becoming more and more confusing to me: The concept of stretching.
For dancers, flexibility is kind of important. Unfortunately, we have no idea how to do it properly: The what, when, how, and why of stretching. There’s more to it than sitting in your splits for 2 minutes. Even though that’s really fun and impressive.
I used to think sitting in a over-split was cool. If you ever catch me doing this again, shoot me.
Are your muscles really “tight”?
You know that feeling the next day after you’ve worked really hard, and your muscles are sore or “tight” feeling? That was a dumb question. Of course you do! So what do you usually do about it? You stretch the sore muscles, right? This may sound counter-intuitive, but I’m learning more and more that this is probably NOT the greatest idea.
I know I always talk about when I strained my hammy, but let’s think back to that for a moment so I can better illustrate what I’m trying to say.
My hamstring was feeling really tight for 4 months so I decided to stretch it intensely and tiger balm it up before each dance class. In reality, it wasn’t that it needed to be stretched out, but it was actually inflamed from being over used. But what did I do? I stretched it excessively because it felt tight. What happens when you stretch something that is inflamed? It becomes weak. Using the metaphor of a rubber band, what happens to a weak, damaged rubber band when you stretch it too far? It snaps.
Just an FYI, dancers: Have you ever noticed how often we stretch our hamstrings, and how common of an injury it is in our population? Just sayin’…
You see, the muscle becomes inflamed and “tight” feeling, because it is trying to add some stability to the joint in question (in my case, my hip). It creates a sort of “self-cast” to lock everything in place. This adds a bit more solidity to the joint, but also makes it very weak and lacking in mobility. This tight-feeling muscle is actually weak and inhibited in this inflamed state, and stretching will only make it weaker, and make it more prone to injury. BAM. Hamstring strain.
So, if you have “tight” feeling muscles, you really don’t want to stretch them too intensely. How much should you stretch? I really don’t know the answer to that, but learn to listen to your body. It usually knows best, if you actually listen.
Check out this article in the New York times which talks about how stretching can potentially weaken the muscles, and why static stretching shouldn’t be a part of your warm-up
Short Muscles vs Tight Muscles
Yes a muscle can actually be stiff and feel tight, but this is a different thing from being chronically short. I recently partook in an assessment and exercise webinar, and here are some take-away points on the topic, from Nick Rosencutter, a really smart fitness guy:
- Muscle tissue and connective tissue are resistant to stretch
- Muscle has a rubber band/spring type feel
- A potential solution is to strengthen antagonist/synergists, and do possible tissue work and stretching
- The muscle is in a shortened position, with possible shortening at the joint
- Muscle will have a more distinct end feel, and lacks significant ROM
- Potential solution includes long duration stretches, more aggressive tissue therapy, and antagonist strengthening can still help.
It is important to understand the difference between these two feels so as to go about the right method in restoring it’s flexibility. As a general rule, muscles that become “stiff” are ones that are overused (like your hammies), and ones that become “short” are from chronic poor positioning, like slouching and sitting all day (like your hips and pecs).
But I need to be flexible so how do I do that if stretching is bad??
Well stretching isn’t necessarily “bad”.
For dancers, and other athletes who require extreme flexibility, I guess there really isn’t any way of getting around the fact that you’ll need to do some extra stretching. It’s the nature of the beast. But, it’s also nice to be flexible without making yourself weaker and more pre-disposed to injury.
Here is what I speculate is the best way to improve or maintain the desired amount of flexibility you need without TOO many risks:
I guess what you should really take away from this, is not that stretching is necessarily BAD, because it does serve it’s purpose. But please stop stretching mindlessly. Use caution. Learn to listen to your body. As you are stretching, ask yourself WHY you are doing that particular stretch. If you don’t have a good reason, then don’t do it. And please for the LOVE OF GOD, remember to warm up. I dare say that I might still be able to dance today if I had only paid attention to that one thing. Or maybe not…
Lucky you! In part 2 of this epic tale of SI joint mastery, Bizz shares with you her favourite exercises to rekindle an old friendship with your SI joint. For those of you who missed part one, she pretty much explains how most of us, especially as dancers, have jammed and stuck SI joints that can cause a multitude of pains, in the lower back, knee, etc. She explains that the root of these mysterious pains are often a jammed SI joint, something which often eludes us, and she further explains how showing it some love can go a long way.
And now onwards to part 2! Lots of great exercises in here, and be sure to check out Bizz’s website to see full video explanations of all the moves.
Rehab – How can I be BFFs with my SIJs?
Disclaimer: While I have lots of personal and professional experience helping people heal their SIJs, I am NOT, in fact, a doctor. If these exercises help you, that is wonderful, but if they do not or if your pain gets worse, PLEASE see a medical professional – ideally one who has experience working with dancers.
I’ve provided a number of options for each step because I’ve found that every SIJ joint issue has a personality of its own, and different bodies respond better to different therapies. I recommend giving all of them a try to find which ones whisper the sweet nothings that your SIJs need to hear. The best course of defence against future issues in the SIJs is to do a little work on them every day, from a minimum of 5 up to an ideal-world 20 minutes, either all at once or a few times a day, as needed. Once you become familiar with the exercises and with the difference between the way a functional and dysfunctional SIJ feels, you’ll know what your body needs and when, and you can address any weird twinges before they throw off your alignment and set off a zigzag effect throughout your body.
Step 1: Loosen Up
Since so much SIJ drama is caused by tension, the first order of business is loosening the f#$% up (something most over-achieving dancers prefer not to do) (note from Monika- HAHAHA! So true).
This is as much mental as it is physical – you need to get into your happy place so that you can let go of the anxiety that pain and injury cause. In extreme cases, I often recommend a glass of wine to promote relaxation (you gotta do what you gotta do!).
Bouncing: with your feet parallel and shoulder width apart, bend your knees slightly making sure they point over your second toes, and simply bounce gently up and down, letting go of tension throughout your body. You can let your head roll side to side as you bounce, and try bouncing on one leg at a time while you stack your joints over one another from your feet to your head.
Pelvic Tilt: laying on your back with your feet hip width apart on the floor and your knees bent, gently tilt your pelvis towards your head, rocking your tailbone up off the floor and slightly flattening the curve in your low back. This is a subtle movement that wakes up your deep muscles, so you need to keep it small. Your obliques, transverse abs and adductor magni can rock your pelvis, but only if you relax your glutes and try not to push with your legs.
Step 2: Align
The second most important thing you can do to improve your SIJ function is to embrace inward hip rotation.Turnout is not your enemy, but over-reliance on turnout muscles is, so do yourself a favour and learn to love parallel feet, hip width apart. In yoga, the opposite of turnout is called ‘inner spiral’. A balance of inner and outer spiral appropriate to the body’s position is the key to SIJ stability. A great way to learn to use inner spiral is to use an image I call the “pelvic smile.”
Pelvic Smile: When you activate your pelvic smile, you turn on your deep abdominals and activate your inner spiral while releasing your outer rotators. To do it, imagine that you are able to look at a cross-section of your body, as though you were cut in half just below your navel at the level of your ASISs (the bony points at the front of your pelvis). A top view from here would reveal the two halves of your pelvis connecting at the SIJs in something like a semi-circle.
If you make your index finger and thumb into a semi-circle on each hand and connect them at the tips of your thumbs, you can simulate this image. Without proper alignment, your hip bones can feel (and your hands will look) kind of like a ‘W’. We want to make them into a ‘U’ or smile shape. To accomplish this, there are three main actions:
First, you will imagine widening across the back of your pelvis, pulling your low belly muscles in towards your sacrum (pulling your thumbs out to make a rounder shape) Next you’ll use your deep abdominals to narrow your ASISs (hip points) towards each other in the front of your pelvis (pull your index fingertips towards the centre to make your fingers perpendicular to your thumbs). The third action deals with the body in space. When you are standing, the pelvic smile (fingers and thumbs) should be parallel with the ground, and when you lie on your back the ASISs will point up towards the ceiling. When on your stomach, the pelvic smile forms a bridge from one hip point to the other, with the sacrum at the apex. When you are moving through space, the pelvic smile should move with you, maintaining its position between your head and your feet.
Once I experienced the magic of pelvic smile, I couldn’t help but do it everywhere – in the shower, while washing dishes, grocery shopping…. it works wonder to get you in alignment, and you’ll find that after a little practice, you’ll develop a smirk on your face to go along with it, one that says “bet you can’t guess where I’m smiling right now ;)”.
Step 3: Warm Up
Developing a mental picture of your pelvis by using imagery (such as the pelvic smile) will help you to understand what does and doesn’t work for your body. If the pelvic smile doesn’t work for you, there are lots more options – ask around or check out Donna Krasnow’s dancer-saving Conditioning with Imagery.
Muscles, like people, have trust issues, and when dancers focus all their attention on the outer rotators, the inner ones will weaken and retreat, sulking in a corner and refusing to do their jobs. Being an especially touchy and stubborn kind of joint, the SIJ responds better to attempts at realignment once it’s been flattered with a little attention, so be sure to warm up before you try any of the release techniques.
You will find the exercises below described in my free workout video “The Pilates Quick Fix” on youtube (or visit my website to order a DVD). Here is a quick list of the most important exercises to improve your relationship with your SIJs, so if you don’t have time for the 25 minute video, you can choose the exercises you need the most.
Glute medius and Adductor magnus: Hip release
QL & Latissimus dorsi: Back extensions
Ilio-psoas: Hip fold
Step 4: Release
Retraining involves three things: releasing tense and spasmed muscles, strengthening weak ones, and then stretching and massaging to lengthen the short ones. Because SIJ dysfunction affects so many parts of the body, it would be inefficient to try and strengthen the weak muscles without first putting things back into place.
Releasing is not the same as stretching. While stretching involves pulling on the ends of a relaxed muscle to make it longer, releasing places the body in a position that brings the ends of a tense or spasmed muscle closer together so that the muscle can relax. It’s important to release before you strengthen (and before you stretch), because it will help maintain your alignment as you retrain your body.
Some people hold more tension in their piriformis, while others focus theirs in the glute medius or QL. Releases are best held for 3 minutes, but the longer you stay, the more your muscles will remember what it feels like to loosen the f$%# up.
Outward rotation (releases glute max & piriformis)
Laying on your stomach with feet hip width apart, bend the knee of the affected side so the shin is perpendicular to the floor. Take the bent knee out to the side, about 30-45 degrees from the midline of the body, and place the knee on top of a pillow or cushion. Now allow the foot of the bent leg to drop towards the straight leg, passively rotating outwards. You need to relax the entire leg on the affected side, so you’ll want to prop the foot against something so you don’t have to use your hamstrings to keep the leg bent. I like to do this in a doorframe or near a table, but a chair or stack of heavy books would also make a decent foot-stopper. Once you’re there, focus on breathing deeply and relaxing the outer rotators on each exhale. I also like to reach back and use my hand to give the butt muscles a good jiggle to make sure they’re loosening up. This one is way easier if you get a friend to help, but it can be done on your own when necessary.
Inward rotation (releases glute med & IT band)
Laying on your side (with the affected side on top), make sure your body is in one straight line from head to toes. Bring your top knee forward, at an angle of about 45 degrees to the body and place the entire shin on a pillow or bolster. Roll forward slightly so that your weight rests on the cushion (you might like to cuddle a pillow to your chest as well). Make sure the foot and shin of the bent leg are at the same height as the knee. Once again, breathe deeply and go to your happy place, and add a little jiggle if necessary.
Seated fourth (releases glutes, piriformis and IT band)
This one is a great quick release you can do just about anywhere, no props required. Sit in fourth position with the affected leg behind you (bend the unaffected leg in front of you as though you were going to sit cross-legged, with the unaffected leg curled around behind you near your butt). Align your upper body with the thigh bone of the back leg, and lean away from the leg and rest on your hand or elbow. While relaxing the glutes and thigh muscles of the back leg, massage the piriformis and glute med. I often twist and wiggle around some in this position to find the ideal spot for release.
Bolster release (SI and QLs, etc)
For this release you’ll need a prop that is at least 8-12” in length and not much wider than your SI dimples. A foam roller will do but you can also use a tightly-rolled yoga mat or a bolster if you want something softer. The roll will line up with your spine, and you will lay on it with the bottom at your tailbone. If your prop isn’t as long as you spine, you’ll want to cushion your head and upper body above its end. Once in position on top of your roller, bring the soles of your feet together and your knees out to the side. Place your hands on your hip bones and rock them gently side to side while thinking soft and happy thoughts about your glutes. You may feel a clunk or a shift, or you may not feel anything move, but either way this is a VERY effective release for the SI joint once the muscles surrounding it have chilled out.
Step 5: Strengthen
Now comes the business of strengthening those tense, weak inward rotators so that they feel equal to the outers and start doing their jobs. Don’t skimp on this part – you have probably spent more hours ignoring your inner muscles than you care to admit, and this is your chance to make it up to them. Although joints can be replaced these days, you can’t just trade in the ones you’ve got for ones that trust you more, so you and your SIJs might as well start talking about your feelings and working through your issues now.
Pilates is a very effective way to strengthen your deep core muscles and facilitate neuromuscular repatterning. Make sure to use your pelvic smile! Instructions for the exercises below can be found in my Quick Fix video.
Abs: Tic tocs, Ab curl
Multifidus: Back extensions
Glute medius: Clam shell
Adductor magnus: Butterfly
QL & Latissimus dorsi: Swimming, Arm & leg reach
Ilio-psoas: Hip fold (*try it with a straight leg, too)
Step 5.1 Re-release
In the beginning stages of retraining, old habits could pop up during strengthening and cause a spasm in the outer muscles. If this happens, don’t stress, just go back to step 4 and re-release them before you stretch.
Step 6: Stretch/Massage
Stretching and massaging is about balancing the resting length of your muscles. You need to lengthen your outer rotators to balance them with your inner ones so your SIJs can rest easily between the two. Because the SIJ’s range of motion is small and controlled by deep ligaments, muscles and fascia, stretches won’t be able to get at all the structures that need attention. Massage (using props for those hard to reach places) will dig down into them, basically reverse-stretching them in the way you would roll out a pie crust.
Yoga is a great way to stretch while maintaining proper alignment and activation of your postural muscles. You will find instructions for most of these poses in my Hippy Hippy Shake videos (or see YogaJournal for step-by-step basics). And don’t forget to use your pelvic smile!
Chair pose (with twists)
High and low lunge (with twists)
As for massage, a pair of hard rubber bouncy balls are ideal for getting into the deep structures around your SIJs (tennis ball size is good, but I find tennis balls themselves to be too soft and slippery). (Note from Monika- You can get a lacrosse ball for four bucks from Canadian Tire). Place them on either side of your spine and roll up and down against a wall for a nice deep massage. You want to avoid rolling over your spine, instead focus on the muscles and tendons. Make sure you get down into the glutes, and even turn sideways to get the entire glute medius and the IT band.
I’d love to hear how these exercises work for you, and I’d be happy to answer your questions on becoming BFFs with you SIJs, so feel free to drop me a line at email@example.com. And as a nerdy bonus that doubles as a workout soundtrack, check out the classic Canadian tune “Let Your Backbone Slide” in which Maestro Fresh-Wes gives a shout-out to the SIJ just before the 3 minute mark. Holla!
Check out the free 30 Day Core Challenge. It’s a great way to get back in touch with the fundamentals of “core” (do you know what they are?). All you need to do is make time every day for a few minutes of practice for 30 days. Simple 🙂