Muscles You’re Using Wrong: Calf Edition

Muscles You’re Using Wrong: Calf Edition

I’ve decided to start a new article series: Muscles You’re Using Wrong. And this one’s dedicated to your PLANTAR FLEXORS. Your posterior calf.

 Plantar flexing= Pointing your foot. Muscles that can plantar flex include:

  • Gastrocnemius
  • Soleus
  • Tibialis posterior
  • Flexor hallucis longus/brevis
  • Flexor digitorum longus/brevis
  • Peroneus longus/brevis

Yep, there’s that many… In the picture below, you can see these muscles in cross-section, view from above.

cross section of the lower leg.

Before I continue, I already know the perfectionist in you is screaming “OOOOOMG not ANOTHER thing I’m doing wrong!!!”, so heed this disclaimer: You are not consciously doing something wrong, and you’re NOT a bad person because your plantar flexor group is hypertonic. Please do not feel bad about using a muscle group “the wrong way”. It’s not your fault.

So now that that’s out of the way, I’m sorry to break it to you but your calves are probably inhibiting your ability to use your glutes properly. And It’s not necessarily even a strength vs. weakness thing, it’s a pattern stored in your brain from years of foot pointing.

These are NOT innocent calves, though they belong to an excellent dancer: Luis Ortigoza, principal dancer Ballet de Santiago.

Before we go any further, I want to over-simplify something HUGE:

Many dance styles require foot pointing.

Dancers are reprimanded for not pointing their feet.

Dancers often feel inferior for not having naturally pointy feet.

Being reprimanded and feeling inferior is stressful.

Dancers learn to point their feet as a reaction to stress and to receive praise.

Dancers will unconsciously point their feet in non-dance situations to cope with stress, mentally (like exam writing) or physically (strenuous exercise)

Foot pointing uses your calves (plantar flexor group to be precise).

Therefore, dancers tend to overuse their calves.

In dancing, yes, foot pointing is necessary. But this plantar-flexion-reaction, can also carry over into other non-dance activities. Your calves are just always on. As you’re sitting here reading this, maybe your feet are pointed, even if not actively.

For example, a few days ago I caught myself sitting on the bus like THIS:

I know it looks like I’m actively pointing my foot, but that’s a relaxed ankle position. As you can probably tell, I don’t need to work very hard to get my calves to hypertrophy: Every exercise is a calf exercise for me.

Signs that your plantar flexors are facilitated and interfering with other muscle functions: 

  • When your massage therapist touches your calves it makes you want to vomit and/or cry.
  • In dance class you don’t feel “grounded”, or get corrected to be more grounded
  • You often have to hop to find your balance on one leg.
  • You get foot or calf cramps frequently.
  • If you’ve ever sprained your ankle(s)…
  • Your ankles feel “jammed”.
  • You’ve had shin splints, plantar fasciitis, achilles tendinitis, or numerous other lower leg woes.
  • Your calves just feel generally, unreasonably “tight”.
  • Do a set of 20 hip bridges: Do you feel your calves burning? Can you even feel your butt work?

The above points are particularly true for dancers who rely on their calves to do the work of glute max. They are synergists, after all.

Problem: Hyperactive calves could be preventing your glutes from firing when you need them to (more on why that can be problematic later on in this post).

Solution: Is two-fold. First, you must down-regulate the plantar flexors via soft tissue release and/or stretching, and second, up-regulate the glute max via activation and strengthening exercises.

In the video below, a colleague of mine, Dr. Blessyl Buan (also my co-collaborator for the DTP summer training intensive) helped me demonstrate a few techniques I’ve found useful to release the calves and re-activate the glutes in a better sequence. Turns out (haha get it? TURN OUT?) that, like me and many other dancers, she has a little bit of a plantar flexor dominance thing going on, too. Shit happens when you point your feet!

SO to recap for those of you who didn’t want to watch the video:

1) Use lacrosse ball to release the calves.

2) Do a very low grade glute activation exercise by simply pushing the foot into the floor, and holding the lacrosse ball behind your knee to give you some feedback as to whether or not you’re using your calf and/or hammies to do it, rather than the glute max.

Anecdotally, this sequence has been helping with my own hip, knee, and lower back troubles. It’s also been helping myself and my clients to feel their glutes more, be more stable standing on one leg, and help with that awful calf tightness

My favourite time to perform my calf/glute homework is as it’s own session, before bed. Takes me about 15-30 minutes (depending how deep I feel like getting into it). But this work can and should be done before working out or dancing as part of your warm-up, for a shorter period of time, if you know it’s an issue you’re struggling with. It should help put your glute max back where it belongs (not in your calf).

Why is glute max function such a big deal for dancers?

I’m sure I’ve written about this before, BUT(t)… ha ha ha

Glute max is an important player in pelvic alignment.

The Postural Restoration Institute refers to glute max as the number one anti-gravitational, and most powerfully positioned external rotator of the pelvis and femur, meaning that if you lose glute max function and strength, you lose your position. And likewise, if you lose your pelvic and hip position, you lose your glute max power.

Photo from PRI's Myokinematic Restoration manual.

Glute max not only stabilizes the hip and pelvis, but the knee too.

This is due to it’s fascial connection with the IT band, which crosses the knee, giving the glute max a bit of influence on knee function. Ever been diagnosed with “IT band syndrome”, “knee tracking syndrome”, or “patellofemoral pain syndrome”? In many cases these are all just fancy ways of saying “something’s inhibiting the glute”.

 

Dancers tend to overuse their glute max to facilitate turnout. 

This could be a topic for another edition of “Muscles You’re Using Wrong”. When your leg is off the floor, the deep lateral rotators should be turning the leg out, not glute max, but since the calves are being glutes, the glute is free to find something else to do, so turnout it is!

The length and strength of the deep lateral rotators  are best manipulated by using the glute max.

Another reason it’s important for the glute max to be doing it’s OWN function properly: Piriformis, obturators, and friends can get short and tight (but weak) from all the joys of dancing turned-out, but due to their deepness, they are quite difficult to actually stretch and activate in isolation.

The DEEP lateral rotators. Notice the similar fiber dirrection of glute max and piriformis? Makes it easy for your brain to confuse their functions sometimes. And that hamstring, too...

But your superficial glute max is much easier to get to (to release, stretch and strengthen). By changing strength and position of glute max, you can indirectly improve the strength, length and tonicity of those deep lateral rotators, which have a way of bunging things up (jammed SI joints, hip compression and pain, back pain, sciatic pain, etc).

And there are probably more things that could be said about glute max function. Like how you need to it do athletic things. Aesthetics, too, are important ;).

So now you know what to do, and I hope you’ll try it out and let me know how your calf vs. glute struggle goes.

*FYI I have also seen cases of plantar flexors inhibiting the function of the psoas, quads, and abdominals. So please get those calves under control. It’s kind of a big deal.

 

 

Dance Cross-Training Myths De-Bunked- Part 2

Welcome back for round 2.

Yesterday, I talked about a number of dance training myths that I think it’s time we put to rest. If you haven’t read PART 1 <— Click there.

Contrary to popular belief, strength-training is actually GOOD. You won’t grow big unsightly(??) muscles all of a sudden. You’ll retain your flexibility, and your technique is bound to actually improve, not deteriorate.

But before I continue with the myth de-bunkery, what does cross-training even mean?

The Merriam Webster dictionary states that to cross-train is “to engage in various sports or exercises especially for well-rounded health and muscular development”.

Or, as our good friend Wikipedia defines an athlete cross-training:

…An athlete training in sports other than the one that athlete competes in with a goal of improving overall performance. It takes advantage of the particular effectiveness of each training method, while at the same time attempting to negate the shortcomings of that method by combining it with other methods that address its weaknesses.”

Dancing does a poor job of building a well-balanced body. In fact it does just the opposite, propagating some pretty extreme muscle imbalances. The nature of dance requires us to maintain much of this asymmetry (turnout, for example), but causes us to become over-trained and injured far too often.

Another manner in which the “dance system” fails us, is when dance teachers use what are comparable to scare tactics on their students in the summer. During the summer, or any“off season” when regular classes stop running, dancers are encouraged to keep dancing as much as possible for fear that we might get “out of shape”.  As it turns out (get it? turnout? Ha Ha…), getting a little out of dancer shape isn’t a bad idea.

It could be that the instructors do genuinely believe that dancing constantly, without ever taking a break, is the best way to train. Perhaps… But I think dancers and their parents should also be aware that dance schools don’t make as much money in the summer, and as such, they need market with a sense of urgency to attract students to their school . By claiming that, “If you don’t dance in the summer you will lose all your technique and get out of shape!”, dancers often feel obligated to dance in the summer.

When summer rolled around, I always stressed about finding a good summer program, and felt guilty if I didn’t do “enough” dancing.

In reality, the best thing you can do during the summer is to participate in fewer dance classes, and cross-train with other complimentary activities instead. Activities that don’t train your body the same way dance does.

I remember the summer that I didn’t take one single dance class. Instead I did yoga classes twice per week, and trained for a triathlon. While this is far from what I’d call “ideal” cross-training for a dancer, this regime did give my dancer muscles a nice break, and I actually came back to dance classes with noticeably improved technique.

Funny how that works, eh?

Let’s now take a closer look at these dance-training myths, and hang them out to dry:

1)      Strength training (lifting weights), will make your dance technique worse.

WRONG.

Strength training (properly…) will help to improve muscle imbalances, which will prevent  injuries and actually help to improve your technique! Using the same muscles OVER AND OVER causes some muscles to shorten, and others to become weak. Your body gets really “smart” by compensating, and creates shifty movement patterns to work around the tight and weak muscles.

For example, a few posts ago, I talked about how when I was young I walked with my right foot pointing 45 degrees to the side to alleviate the intense pain I felt in my hip. Things like this lead to the alarmingly high rate of dance injuries.

By addressing your muscles imbalances, your body will move more efficiently, and with less pain. By being injured less you’ll get to spend more time actually dancing and excelling at your art form, and less time recovering from injuries.

As Matthew Wyon puts it, “The goal of supplemental training is for the dancer to have a greater physical and mental “reserve” than the dance performance requires, thereby allowing the dancer’s “energies” to be directed toward the aesthetic components of performance and not just the fundamentals of the movement.” (2010)

2)      Strength training will reduce flexibility, and create big unsightly muscles.

FALSE.

Though I realize this is an n=1 example, I weight train 3-4 times per week, and can still do the splits. Granted, since I stopped dancing and stretching regularly, my flexibility has decreased, but in no way do I feel that training with weights caused me lose any flexibility.

Dancers have a huge imbalance between strength and flexibility. Most of us are hypermobile, which can be pretty dangerous. It may sound counter intuitive, but strength training intelligently will help improve both the mobility and stability around joints, which can help you lift your leg higher without actually increasing the flexibility of the muscle itself.

Will your muscles become big and unsightly if trained? Not unless you’re training like a body-builder and taking steroids. Seriously. The fact is, it takes a lot of work to get “big and bulky” muscles, especially for a woman. And the type of training required to get that “look” probably won’t help your dancing in any way.

3)      Doing anything BUT dancing will cause your dance technique to become worse.

FALSE.

I think I’ve already tackled this one, but I’ll say it again- Giving your dancer muscles a break will allow your body to perform better when you return back to dance mode. If you leave a light bulb on for too long, what happens? It burns out. Your body works the same way.

By only dancing, all the time, and never trying to address the toll it takes,  massive muscle imbalances can form.  Attempting to repair your body by strength training is especially helpful to if you have reached a technical plateau, or if you suffer from the same injury over and over (which for me, and for many dancers, was my lower back).

4)      During the summer, dancers should try to dance as much as possible to retain technique.

WRONG. AGAIN…

If you want to come back fresher than ever to dance classes, cross-train during the summer months to avoid burnout and over-training. This is a good time to focus on other activities you enjoy, not only to rest your body, but your mind too.

So what do I recommend for cross-training purposes? If you can afford it, work with a trainer who knows the dancer’s body, and who can properly assess your strengths, weaknesses and imbalances, and put together a program specifically for you and your needs. Lift some freakin’ weights. Squat, lunge, deadlift, push-up, and row.

To get a better idea of what I mean by strength training, check out my free 4 week program. Go ahead, >> CLICK ME<< . Just enter your email address, and a robot monkey will send you the secret password to access the program instantly.You will see video examples of the kinds of exercises I have my dancers do.

There’s a long way to go before the role of strength training becomes clear in the dance world. When it does, I believe we will see a reduction in the amount of injuries, and an increase in new, innovative, and strength based choreography. I can’t wait! Let’s start dancing stronger

 

 

References:

Wyon, M. (2010). Preparing to perform periodization and dance. Journal of Dance Medicine and Science