“Hold your core tight!”
“Suck in your belly
“Activate your lower abs!”
If these aren’t familiar, then I don’t believe you’ve ever been to a dance class! Or maybe you’re just THAT good…
If you hear those cues a LOT from your dance teachers, or even if you’re a dance teacher and you’re guilty of using those corrections, well this should be an exciting read for you.
In fact, “I need to strengthen and activate my core” is the number one goal most of my clients initially have, and is also the number one thing they tend to hear from their teachers that they need to improve.
So today is all about core strength- Why-to, how-to, and how-NOT-to, too.
And especially if you’re a beginner, this might be the most useful thing you’ve ever read pertaining to the “best core exercises” for dancers.
I’m not claiming that this is the most amazing core workout program you could ever do, but I can tell you for sure that it’s not bullshit.
I won’t suggest cute little exercises that target your cute little stabilizing muscles, nor will I overwhelm you with anatomical jargon.
What I will do is tell you the truth about core training (as I know it).
And most importantly, I hope I’ll make you think, and give you some actionable stuff to take away and try RIGHT AWAY.
To be completely honest, I’ve come to hate the word “core”. I try to avoid using it because it feels so ambiguous. I feel like half the time I use the term “core” I don’t even know what I’m talking about. And I’ll admit that because, like I said above, I’m not going to bullshit you.
I really am a good coach, I promise…
So what is the core?
If you’re like me, you want the answers to these questions:
Does “core” mean your abs?
Is it more than that?
And what does it mean when you hear “engage your core!”?
Should you be consciously thinking about activating your core while you dance?
What are the best exercises to get your core to engage while you dance?
When’s the best time to do core exercises?
How many crunches do I need to do??
Think about those questions for a moment. Write down your thoughts, and then come back to them at then end of this post. I’m going to tell you what I think (obviously, cause it’s my blog and I can say what I want), but you don’t have to agree with me.
And regardless of what the “right” answers are, it’s important just to consider these questions. Don’t blindly do what everyone else is doing, THINK for yourself about what right for YOU.
Question everything. Even me. Especially me…
But for now, try to forget everything you thought you knew about core training for dance.
By the end of this post I hope you’ll have better understanding of what the core is, how to train it, and notice right away how using the advice in this article will help improve your dancing.
STOP WITH THE CRUNCHES IN CLASS
I have to get this off my chest… I wish dance teachers would stop putting so many crunches and other cute core exercises into their dance warm-ups without knowing why they’re doing them.
I know, the ab-burn feels productive, but is it actually?
But I also realize that if your dance teacher is asking you to do crunches in class and you just lie there doing nothing, rolling your eyes, it is extremely rude, so don’t do that. Hence my frustration!
If you’re a teacher and you ask your dance students to do crunches in dance classes, I hope you’ll reconsider because you may be wasting valuable time you could be teaching your students to be better dancers.
And not to mention crunches bore me out of my mind. Just sayin’. I came to your class because I value your experience and want to absorb your dance knowledge. I want you to teach me to dance, not do crunches with me.
If I really wanted to do crunches, I’d do them at home. But I won’t. Because I know a better way (keep reading!). And crunches suck.
Can that be a hashtag? Ohhh yeahhh it can #CrunchesSuck
What IS the core?
When you think core, you probably think of abs. But abs ain’t the whole core story.
I realize that there are many different philosophies and systems for naming and exercising the muscles that constitute the core. Just run a Google search. There’s wayyyy too much info on core training.
I really don’t want to add to the core confusion.
I don’t claim that my way is 100% correct, its simply the way I’ve been taught, and is the best way I know to describe it to help my clients get results at this point in my career. It might change in few months, I don’t know yet, in which case I’ll have to revise this.
In fact, after I take Anatomy in Motion in November (super stoked!) I’ll probably have to delete this whole post out of embarrassment.
What are the muscles of the core?
Be aware that there are two sub-groups of core musculature with different roles and a different priority of needs: The intrinsic and extrinsic core subsystems.
Intrinsic and Extrinsic Core
Intrinsic core refers to the inner core: Muscles that don’t create large movements but help to hold the deepest parts of you together, including your organs. These muscles include (but not limited to):
- Thoracic diaphragm
- Pelvic floor
- Transverse abdominis (TVA)
The extrinsic core consists of more superficial muscles that, while still important for alignment and stability, are more responsible for creating movement. These big moving muscles include:
- Internal and external obliques
- Rectus abdominis
In the hierarchy of core, intrinsic core takes priority. That means if you have jaw, diaphragm, or pelvic floor issues, core exercises like crunches ain’t gonna help with that.
But Monika, (you may be thinking) that’s just crazy talk- The jaw is not a core muscle, and if it is, are you saying I should be strengthening my jaw?
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?
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.