Last weekend I was at the IADMS conference in Hong Kong to learn from and present to some of the smart people in the dance medicine and science world.
In the picture you’re looking at myself in the middle, along with Lauren Warnecke from Chicago, of Art Intercepts, and Christina D’amico, from Utica New York, of Enhance4Dance (a strength training program for dancers based out of her gym). The studios at the Hong Kong Center for Performing Arts were absolutely beautiful.
As you may have read HERE, one of my movement sessions was cancelled due to typhoon. The typhoon itself turned out to be quite underwhelming, and more annoying that terrifying (not complaining about being safe, though!).
Lauren, Christina, and I collaborated to hold a movement session on strength training applications for dancers (it’s just a shame so few dancers can actually afford to attend the conference!).
Our session should really have been titled, “Here’s how to actually perform the exercises that the research says are beneficial for dancers to do in a way that your body will thank you for”. But that doesn’t roll of the tongue as nice.
I EVEN LEARNED A THING OR TWO…
Always learning a thing or two.
As Julien Smith said, and words I live by, whether deliberately or not, “Aim to be the stupidest one in the room.” That way I’m always learning.
For me, a key take-away from IADMS this year was the realization that the need to cater to the individual needs of dancers, not to generalize that dancers, as a group, should do x, y, and z, is generally lacking recognition in research land, or is simply slow to. After all, this is only the 26th year of IADMS.
We see the big picture quite well now, but the application requires us to zoom in and focus on reaching individuals and communities.
This is already something that I think we all know intuitively, but to see some presentations addressing this made me realize that maybe it isn’t as appreciated as I thought. Too, to see some presentations NOT discuss individual variance in how we should treat and train dancers brought it’s importance even more to the forefront in my mind.
What the heck am I trying to say?
Individual dance genres have their own unique needs. Let’s be wary of saying dance is THIS or THAT. Dancers should do this and that. There is so much variation between each dance style.
Individual individuals have their needs. Based on their injury history, lifestyle, and other factors that make me and you unique from Cindy Lou.
And individual species have their needs (us humans). As a species, we all have (ideally) the same biomechanics and anatomy, regardless of what we do with it. Dancers aren’t some special species…
To the end of every research presentation supporting strength or cross training for dancers, the addendum, “if done in a way that serves each dancer’s individual needs as a member of the human race”, would have been a nice touch.
Though our mechanics and anatomy are essentially the same, I do not move like Cindy because I am not Cindy. I have different set of challenges than Cindy, and this needs to be understood and respected in a training program or treatment strategy. Cindy and I should not be treated like the same person.
Common sense, right?
And then someone said something that pissed some people off
In a generally inspiring way.
There was this one particular presentation that ended by “concluding” that strength training was not good for dancers and other athletes, and that this presenter’s particular way of training only motor control to address individual asymmetries was far superior, and conventional strength training is the cause of many injuries. Therefore, dancers should not strength train (because apparently strength and motor control are two things that can’t be trained concurrently… But that’s a rant for another day).
It was very interesting to observe my own reaction to this statement. I could feel my heart beating a little faster. I looked over to my left and saw Lauren’s eyes widen.
On one hand, my ego and my biases were outraged. What he is saying goes against what I built my career upon. This must be what it feels like to be a podiatrist on an Anatomy in Motion course realizing that he could help people get out of pain without selling orthotics.
But on the other hand, I could completely agree with him. It is true that strength training, if not done in a way that addresses an individual’s needs, and not done in a way that prioritizes quality movement over quantity movement, can be deleterious.
But so can any activity. There’s a rather large “IF” missing.
The use of one word in his conclusion changed everything: “Is”, as in, “strength training IS bad for dancers and athletes”, I think is what ruffled my feathers, and those of my fellow strength coaches in the audience. The use of absolute terms, “strength training causes injuries” pissed a lot of us off. Not only that, they are dangerous to use because not everyone has the sense to think a little deeper about the use of absolute statements and their truth.
But at the same time, his “conclusion” also challenged our thinking. What if he has a point? And I think he does. Not that strength training is bad, but what if this presentation was a wake-up call for some folks in the audience that the way that we’re training dancers to gain strength isn’t serving them?
Are we paying close enough attention to the details?
Do we have enough trainers and coaches in our field that can observe and assess movement and guide dancers safely and effectively through whatever style of cross-training and strength training they decide to do?
On both of the above counts, I don’t think we do. And I’m not saying that I am awesome, either. I’m still learning, and the more I learn the more I realize that I know very, very little about movement and strength training.
I think our favourite presenter’s core message is significant: Dancers and athletes should be treated as individuals, not as a group, and should be assessed and given exercises that are specific to their needs.
This is something that I firmly believe. No, it’s not just a belief. It is the truth as far as I can tell. And it is why I feel lately that writing this blog as a “do this exercise to get this result and be awesome” doesn’t sit right with me ethically, because what might be extraordinarily useful for one individual at one particular moment in time could be exactly what another person should not do.
And this core message- address the individual and don’t clump dancers together as one group with only one set of needs, is one reason why Lauren, Christina and I felt strongly that our movement session had value.
Here’s what we did: We simply broke down three important fundamental movements: Hip hinge (aka deadlift), squat, and push-up. We went through the technique. We troubleshooted. We demoed what to do and what not to do. We hoped it was useful… (and later we learned that it was!).
It wasn’t rocket surgery, but it was info that we hoped dancers, dance sceintists, and dance teachers could appreciate and use.
“Here are the exercises the research tells us dancers can use to their benefit, but most importantly, this is an opportunity to explore them in your body, ask questions about what you’re experiencing so that you can feel confident doing them on your own, and know how to respect your body’s limits while doing them.”
That important experiential stuff that many sciency, medical folks might not have the time for or appreciate as often as we’d like.
In fact, as I encouraged one such sciency-guy to “experience the movement in your own body” before bombarding me with questions on the supporting “evidence” for what I was presenting, he told me I was being too philosophical, too spiritual, too “yoga” (whatever that means). Well, what if what’s missing from dance medicine and science IS a little bit of philosophy, a little bit of experiencing, a little bit of spirit, and a little less intellectualizing and over-analyzing?
But THAT is the difference between strength training that hurts, and strength training that serves a useful purpose for performance.
More often than not, it’s not the what, but the how. It’s understanding the experience you’re having with it. And that is not something easily taught, or easily proven with evidence.
I don’t think we can measure someone’s experience of their understanding of their body in motion- An important skill required for dancing, strength training, yoga-ing, and thriving as a human, whatever you decide to do. And yes, it is a skill, meaning that you can learn and practice to do this better.
And it’s a shame that information can be interpreted in the way that the presenter who thought strength training was bad had done.
Let’s finish that sentence.
Strength training CAN be bad IF…
And even if it does hurt someone, is that not a learning experience? Is that not why this blog I write even exists?
Everything serves, even when it temporarily hurts…
Thank you IADMS 2016 for challenging my thinking, and for your tremendous support of the two movement sessions I actually was able to present. Until next year… Hoping for no typhoons in Houston.
#Simpsonschallenge. I must use a Simpsons reference in every blog post. Because that is how I was raised.
Read part 1 here.
Read part 2 here.
And welcome to part 3. In my mission to be more concise, let us get right to the point.
Today we’ll be talking about movement variability.
Movement variability means having options. But not too many options—>
Movement variability: An optimal amount of variance within the global movements, due to the infinite changing conditions that occur before and during the movement task.
Here’s what’s on our agenda for today:
- What is movement variability and what is it good for?
- How can we appraise it in our bodies?
- How does higher variability help us as dancers and movers?
- Other random stuff that comes out of my brain.
What is movement variability?
Picture yourself walking down the street. Something shiny catches your eye over the the right. With your eyes in the other direction, you don’t see the uneven patch of concrete and your ankle rolls over to the outside.
Outcome 1: Sprained ankle. OMG! NO!
Outcome 2: You’re totally fine.
What’s the main factor determining your fate? Could be luck. But it’s more likely that in outcome two, your body understood how to get out of the ankle roll because it had been there before in a more favourable, safe condition, which didn’t result in an ankle sprain.
You and your ankle had the OPTION to get out of the inversion moment because that movement was in your body’s present vocabulary and you knew how to use it reactively without thinking.
This is an example of possessing movement variability, and using it in real life.
Having multiple strategies for joint and segment interaction to accomplish the same movement (walk around while gazing dreamily off in space, crappy sidewalks or no).
Having options (to move your ankle into maximum inversion and get out of it safely).
Having tri-planar movement ability when you want it, where you want it, to do whatever you want with it (to avoid inversion sprains).
The spice of life
Plain food sucks.
Unless you agree with the food shape…
I’m very sorry if that was disturbing for you…
Anyway, as in food, so too in movement; a lack of variability is not only bland, but…
…result in systems that are less adaptable to perturbations, such as those associated with unhealthy pathological states or absence of skillfulness.
~Human movement variability, nonlinear dynamics, and pathology: is there a connection? (Human Movement Science, 2011)
Movement variability provides us the ability to handle errors and make real time adjustments that occur with movement. Not enough variability and we become stuck in a pattern with limited options, increasing the potential for acute or chronic overuse injuries.
Variability creates movement options in multiple planes to cope with volatility (and all life is volatility). How well we get on amidst the volatility is a reflection of how safe or unsafe we feel with this perpetual flux, and how well we can find strategies to deal with it.
INTERESTING ASIDE: A lack of coping strategies is one of the top reasons researchers think dancers get hurt, so variability as a coping mechanism is a huge deal:
…ballet dancers tended to distinguish poorly between pain that is customary in dance performance and pain associated with injury. Pain is typically seen by dancers as an accompanying facet of dance practice, and dancers are prone to “dance through” pain, even when doing so may be detrimental.
…researchers determined that ballet dancers who are taught general psychological coping skills experienced fewer injuries and less time injured.
~Preventing dance injuries: current perspectives (pen Access Journal of Sports Medicine, 2013)
We can also potentially link optimal movement variability with a healthy variability and function of our autonomic nervous system: The ability to relax when we need to (parasympthetic), and to mobilize ourselves into action when necessary (sympathetic). We need to be able to do both to dance.
Evidence also shows us how higher movement variability reduces risk of injury, or, at the very least, is correlated with non-injured states.
You can see that movement variability is a pretty huge deal:
- More movement options
- More freedom in movement
- Ability to reproduce movements reliably in variable environemnts, like, on stage under bright lights and high stress
- Less injuries
- Better neuroregulation
Sounds great, eh?
What’s interesting is that optimal variability in movement appears “chaotic”, which makes it easy to interpret as “noisy” and not useful. This is incorrect.
One thing I’ve come to appreciate about human movement in the gait cycle, is how freaking chaotic the map of every joint motion seems. But chaotic doesn’t mean unhealthy.
First it is important to distinguish between two different kinds of variability: “End point” and “coordinative variability”.
End point variability: Refers to the product of movement, for example, stride-length, jump height, pirouette, etc. Ideally, this should be low. It’s nice to be able to reliably perform tasks in a similar way each time we do them. Each step, each turn, minimal surprises.
Coordinative variability: Refers to the variability of the interaction between segments or joints. This should be high, or, within an optimal window that is neither too low nor too high. It’s nice when individuals can use multiple strategies in their bodies to safely achieve the same outcome.
When we look at literature relating movement variability with over-use injuries, the traditional view is that low variability in movement is good, because we want to be able to have a reliable experience when we go and try to use our bodies. Makes sense, BUT this is only true if we are working with “end-point variability” which refers to the PRODUCT of movement.
When we zoom in, we see that variability in how joints can safely and easily interact should be high.
When we zoom out we can see how variability in the product of the joint and segment interactions should be low.
Having multiple safe and effective routes to drive to the grocery store is more useful than one “perfect” route, and can save you time and stress when 3 of those routes have massive construction.
To put it another way (as stated HERE):
The path to frailty or injury is identified in this emerging perspective by a loss of variability in fundamental variables reflecting biological function
A loss of freedom. A loss of optionality. Injuries. Disease. Awkward dancing.
Movement variability vs. being skilled at making movement look good
But aren’t dancers already exposed to all kinds of movement? Doesn’t being a dancer imply high movement variability?
Just because you can make all kinds of movements look good, doesn’t mean you possess the variability to perform the safely, efficiently, without extra compensation, and that you can keep doing them that way for as long as you wish.
Too, many dancers, particularly those who are hypermobile, have so much variability and don’t know how to use it. Too many options is just as troublesome as not having enough options.
This is why as educators, trainers, and health-care practitioners we need to understand how to look at fundamental movement quality.
Dancers need to prepared for infinite movement options, because you just don’t know what the choreographer is going to throw at you.
Ohh Marie Chouinard…
An example is a professional ballet company hiring a contemporary choreogpraher who may ask the ballet dancers to move in ways they are not used to. This often can increase the instance of injuries, despite the technical prowess these dancers possess: They just aren’t prepared for the new physical demand!
The fallacy: Strong technical skill does not equal adaptability, fundamental movement quality, or general strength, although adaptability, movement variability, and physical strength DO create the potential for stronger technical skill.
So even though we could infer that dancers have high movement variability, this is sometimes an illusion due to skilled, but patterned movement.
As we know, being stuck in one pattern, even one you can do really well, does not create the multitude of options your body craves to perform safely and effectively in a variety of unpredictable situations and environments:
- Different floors
- Different lighting
- Different size or shaped stage
- Different style of dance
- External stressor messing up your movement game
- Uncomfortable shoes
Just consider the injury rate in dance. That should be enough to question: If a non-injured state is correlated with higher movement variability, and dancers are rarely in a non-injured state, how optimal is their variability, really?
Is it too high, or too low? Where’s the sweet spot?
How did we get this way?
We were all born as bundles of perfect movement potential. Where the heck did things go wrong??
In dance a major factor is that we never mastered the fundamentals. Early specialization plays a role in this.
This is something I discuss all the time in this blog: Never having established, (or lost) a requisite base of fundamental movement. Miguel Aragoncillo wrote something really great on this topic (long term athletic development) a while back, too.
So while many dancers appear to be able to move their bodies in all kinds of ways, they are doing it without a foundation of tri-planar movement to support them, thus desirous coordination and interaction between joints and segments is not happening.
They can make most movement look good (their job as dancers, after all), but when it comes to the fundamentals, they might not be able to demonstrate clean, simple movement.
“Fundamental is not lowest level, but highest importance” ~Source unknown… Probably some Shaolin monk
So maybe you can achieve the range of motion you need, but it comes with an energetic cost, requires some “cheats”, and can cause some problems long term.
How are you doing?
Because I believe that demonstrating the ability to move well in three planes says a lot about you, how you’re doing in life, and the state of your autonomic nervous system. But that’s not really in the scope of my blog, just something I’m observing.
To illustrate the idea of clean, non-compensatory, tri-planar movement, just stand up and give these a try:
- Can you posteriorally tilt your pelvis without bending your knees?
- Can you shift your pelvis to one side without also rotating it?
- Can you rotate your pelvis without also hiking one side?
- Can you lift your ribcage up without having to lift your chin?
- Can you shift your ribcage to one side without also tilting your head?
- Can you tilt your head without shifting your ribcage to one side?
- Can you inhale without needing to flare your ribs?
- Can you exhale without thinking you’re going to die?
In other words: Can you do one thing without having to do another thing if you don’t need to?
How’s your behavioural variability?
As in movement, so too in life…
Can you receive a correction in class without also taking it personally and feeling like a failure for a week?
Can you express yourself and your feelings-be vulnerable, without oversharing unnecessary details. Like that time in Vegas, you know, the incident at the swimming pool, with the peanut butter, and the Elvis impersonator?
Can you eat just one Lay’s chip?
You get the idea. The meta question is, “Do you have the ability to choose?”.
Movement being a behaviour, and behaviour requiring movement, we can see how variability is useful not just for physical performance, but LIFE.
Back to movement though, because this isn’t a behavioural psychology blog.
In an optimally variable system, we should be able to differentiate tri-planar motions, such as in the examples above, meaning, body parts can move in three dimensions independently of others to a certain degree.
Quite often this differentiation is missing: Things get smudged together (technical term). In the motor cortex, areas related to one body part can overlap with others creating this situation in which things HAVE to move at the same time and going through life as a chunk this is not going to feel good for very long.
The “traffic light” variability classification system ©™®;)
Here’s my FMS inspired “red light, yellow light, green light” approach to simplistically classifying potential variability, both for me to observe, and for the individual in question to feel.
I am basing this off results my standard movement screen, part of which uses the Anatomy in Motion model to look at triplanar movement through the pelvis, ribcage, and skull.
I feel that most people can be classified as green, yellow, or red, to varying degrees. Where do you fit in?
- You can differentiate most joints segments and movements with relatively symmetrical ranges right to left, front to back.
- You are not completely missing one plane of movement.
- What you feel happening is an accurate representation of what is actually happening.
- Strategy: Let’s train hard, swing some bell, and kick ass.
- You may have difficulty differentiating some (or many) movements.
- You have some pretty evident asymmetries right to left, and one or more planes of movement may be completely inaccessible
- There is some discrepancy between what is actually happening and what you feel happening with movement.
- Strategy: Let’s train the crap out of what you can do well. Spend some time exploring missing movements in reasonable, safe doses. Keep checking in regularly to see if things are improving.
- Most of the body finds differentiating movements from one another troublesome and foreign as a concept, often bilaterally.
- Very apparent asymmetries side to side and/or multiple planes of movement completely inaccessible.
- Very little ability to distinguish whether movement is happening, in what quantities, and whether the range or quality differs from side to side.
- Presence of acute pain with some movements.
- Strategy: Let’s consider the need for rehab. If they don’t need/want rehab, get them breathing well, build in education on the value of movement quality/differentiation into sessions. Emphasize tuning in to how movements feel. Focus on making movement exploration feel safe with a conservative approach to adding intensity.
As a trainer with manual therapy skills, not a rehab professional, my general role is to help already healthy people get even healthier and perform better, yet due to the nature of the gym I work in (which is also a sports medicine clinic) most of my clients are fresh out of physio, and I tend to see a lot of sensitive, red light folks.
Though they have been “cleared” to begin training for fitness or strength or whatever their goals, just because their treatment is “done” it doesn’t mean Red Light Randy is ready to jump into a training program without first building a movement foundation, and learning to differentiate and appreciate his body in 3 dimension.
Randy: A classic Canadian work of art
I think a good chunk of dancers can be classified as red-lights. Surprising? Not really.
Dancers become really, really good at moving in specific patterns. They take great pride in their patterns, and will hold onto them for dear life. Does this sound like someone who can differentiate movement? Does this sound like someone with variability?
If we think of the biases in dance training and performance (those trained in ballet primarily) there are some “patterns” that can become pretty ingrained, such as preferring to stand and turn on the left leg, turning to the right, and gesturing with the right leg.
But it is useful knowing this lateralization is common, reducing our ability to move in various ways, and points to the importance of providing strategies for dancers to enhance and clean up their ability to differentiate body parts and their movement both right and left, in all dimensions.
Can you move it if you can’t feel it?
We need to back up for a moment and consider that if you can’t feel certain parts of your body at rest, it will be difficult to move them, too.
In your brain there is a physical area called the somatosensory cortex that holds a “map” of your body. In this map, the hands and face have the most representation- more brain tissue devoted to them, compared to the rest of the body, meaning we are more sensitive to touch and sensation in these areas.
What is also pretty cool is that the somatosensory cortex also has a motor function when the motor cortex is impaired. Just shows that the structure in your brain that allows you to sense your body also is important for moving it.
Furthermore, in this monkey study, it was found that overuse of a particular pattern of movement requiring minimal variability, resulted in motor control deterioration and degradation of body part representation in the somatosensory cortex.
To boot, in this study, there as a link found between somatosensory afferent input and motor control in people with neck issues.
How well you feel your body is linked to how well you move your body.
This seems pretty common-sensical, but then you look at the number of people who don’t want to take the time to learn to “re-sense” where their heads are at, literally, and just want quick fix stretches and exercises.
I believe that a piece in this optimal variability puzzle is being able to feel each part of your body and have your brain recognize they exist while NOT moving as well as in motion. To me, this somewhat explains the hypermobile people who have all the movement potential in the world, but without an ability to feel their bodies are unable to fully use them. Would love to hear some thoughts on this.
Can you sit still, close your eyes, and have a conversation, not a monologue, with your body?
“Hey there ribcage, I feel you there, I know you exist, how’s it going today”
“Actually, brain, I’m feeling like you don’t fully appreciate me, but thanks for checking in. Let’s work on this relationship a bit harder”.
This could be the topic of a blog post for another day, but I believe this ability to sense body parts at rest, to distinguish what you can feel clearly and what you cannot is incredibly important for movement.
Maybe I’m talking about meditation, maybe I’m starting to sound esoteric. But what I’m getting at is that differentiated sensory input = differentiated motor output.
How can you expect to get up and perform complex movements when you can’t even feel a body part at rest?
I would love to see more dancers develop an appreciation for the ability to sense themselves and their bodies at rest, and I think adopting this as a daily practice could be a huge asset.
In the ballet class I go to regularly, we begin each class in exactly this way: Lying on the floor, encouraged to explore which parts of our bodies we are able to sense, whatever that means to us. This has had a profound impact on my ability to connect and feel my body in motion and has allowed me to make interesting connections to why some movements are difficult to do, which streamlines my process of making adjustments in training and in life.
I would love if more dance teachers took the first five minutes of class in this way, to help the dancers tune in and appreciate their bodies in stillness before layering on the complexity in which this appreciation can become easily lost.
In martial arts, the “tuning in” part of training is huge. Being able to feel your body. To see yourself doing something in your mind before doing it with your body. Why is it not seen as important in dance? And in other sports?
- Higher movement variability (coordinative variability) is linked to being in a healthy, uninjured state, and provides you with multiple useful and safe strategies to perform the same task. Knowing that the world we live in is highly volatile, our ability to adapt and fine tune movement in real time is a crucial ability to possess.
- Higher movement variability allows us to improve our performance as dancers by improving our ease and freedom in movement, get our joints into the positions we want without strain, and allowing us to easily adapting to new choreographic styles while reducing the risk that we might injure ourselves in the process.
- The role of cross-training in dance is not limited just to strengthening and improving mobility, but to ensuring strength and mobility are built in a way that enhances movement variability. Often, the choice to participate in a strength training program is enough to enhance variability due to the new novel input.
- The ability to differentiate the movement of joints and segments in three planes is a useful way to appraise potential for movement variability, and a great learning experience for the individual.
- “Tuning in” also plays a role in being able to sense our bodies at rest, which can influence how and what we can move when we are up on our feet. This is something that needs to be discussed and valued more highly in dance training.
That’s all for now. I think I wrote enough. Believe it or not, this post was originally much longer… You’re welcome.
Stay tuned for part 4.
It’s that time again… Time to talk about off-season training! Which means that glorious, glorious, summer is coming.
Last week I presented my final workshop of the school year at York U. I will miss these guys, and am looking forward to coming back next fall.
We had some fun times…
Talkin’ ’bout breathing:
Workin’ on dem abs (sortof):
Turning ourselves into magic-elastic shock absorption machines:
And finally, a relevant topic for this time of year, off-season training.
If you’re lucky, summer means you get a bit of a break. If you’re in university or college, you get 4 months off regular classes, rehearsals, and performances. That’s a long time… What are you going to do with it?
This is exactly what I wanted to discuss with the dancers that came out to the workshop.
What is off-season training and how is it different than in-season training? What are the components of a solid off-season training program, and how should you prioritize them? Where does dancing fit into this? How do you schedule everything in without going insane and still having a life?
I learned some stuff, too. In particular:
- Based on this small sample, seems like dancers are not using their off-season effectively, and the understanding of what are the components of a well-rounded off-season program remain relatively illusive.
- Dancers need to feel that it’s ok, and sometimes a really good idea, to prioritize rest and rehabilitation, because they may often feel pressured to keep dancing, or just don’t appreciate that rest is a component of fitness.
- The gaps preventing dancers from participating in off-season training include time/priority management, budget, and not knowing what to do.
Below you can check out a few video clips from the workshop:
My understanding of what is good off-season training for dancers is incomplete. 4 months of off-season makes things easier to plan, but what about when you dance year round and don’t have a predictable off-season?
What happens when you’re an independent dancer, living from gig to gig, never knowing when you’ll get a break, and dreading too long of a break because if means no cash money?
What happens when you’re a professional in a company, and you get 5 weeks of the year off, and maybe not 5 consecutive weeks?
Where does “off-season” training fit in when you don’t have a clearly defined off-season? And with such a busy schedule, how is there even time to fit in “in-season” training?
These are the questions I wish I had the answers to. Here is one of the problems: We have research showing evidence that supplementary training and periodization for dancers is good, but we don’t know how to implement it. As I was discussing with my colleague, the wellness director for the National Ballet, unless the way a company’s rehearsal and performance schedule are adapted to include extra training, there is no way to fit it in without over-training the dancers.
This is important. The difference between “making space for”, and “fitting it in”. It’s a huge difference! And until that shifts, and every dance institution/ individual dancer decides that supplemental training is something to make space for, it will remain this illusive thing that, no matter the amount of evidence backing it’s efficacy, will never be actualized.
Kudos to the ballet companies that are “making space”. May they set the stage for other companies around the world.
And you can check out the handout from the workshop, too:
OFF SEASON TRAINING <– The main handout
OFF-SEASON SAMPLE SCHEDULE<–And here’s the sample schedule work-sheet
My favourite part of dancing is rolling around on the floor. Hell, rolling on the floor is my favourite part of life. —–>
So of course I love Turkish get-ups (TGUs).
The Turkish get-up is an exercise that systematically takes you from lying on the floor, up to standing, while holding a heavy weight over your face. Like a badass.
TGUs are one of the exercises that I feel has great carryover for dancers to their art and athleticism. Not only are they useful for getting you strong and mobile, they look pretty bad ass, too. Which is important, obviously.
In my online training group over at DanceStronger.com, the exercise that gets the most number of questions is the TGU:
“What does this thing even do?
“What’s the point?”
“What muscles am I working?”
“Why is it Turkish?”
Today I’m going to break down why I feel that the Turkish get-up is one of the most useful exercises for dancers, and how to start working on them so you can reap the benefits for yourself.
Looks fun right?
10 Ways TGUs Make You a Better Dancer
1) Creating and controlling rotation
Dance is all about rotation. Creating it, resisting it, trying not to get dizzy and fall on stage.
TGUs are pretty similar- The whole movement requires that you create and control rotation, and not fall over. But with a heavy weight over your face.
From the very first roll portion of the TGU, you need to be able to coordinate lats, glutes, and obliques to roll up onto your elbow. If they aren’t coordinating, it turns into more of a crunch or a side bending movement. This compensation can happen in dance too- Moving in another plane to compensate for a lack of rotation.
A good example of this is when a dancer lacks sufficient hip rotation (think turnout), other ways of mimicking hip rotation include to tip the pelvis or hike a hip to create the illusion of more turnout.
A successful TGU requires you to differentiate between rotation and other cheaty ways of moving.
2) TGUs are a self-limiting exercise
A self limiting exercise is one that gives you immediate feedback as to whether you’re performing it correctly. This is quite useful, especially if you don’t have supervision.
As described beautifully by Gray Cook from his book Movement:
Used correctly, self-limiting exercises improve poor movements and maintain functional movement quality. These exercises are challenging and produce a high neural load, which is to say they require engagement and increased levels of motor control at the conscious and reflexive level.
Anytime we don’t acknowledge our weakest links or confront them in training, we demonstrate the same behavior that caused our collective functional movement patterns to erode in the first place. Embedded in each workout, the self-limiting activities continually whisper the message that we cannot become stronger than our weakest links.
from Movement, by Gray Cook
How is a TGU self limiting? Well, there’s the pressure not to drop a heavy thing on your face, for one.
If you’re not getting your body under the weight efficiently, you will feel it. A great variation for those just learning the TGU is to balance a shoe on your fist.
I suggest for beginners to use the shoe variation to practice getting under the weight first, before loading it up. If you drop the shoe off your first, you get immediate feedback as to whether your arm is in a straight line with gravity, or not.You want that straight line. Your face wants that straight line, because it wants to stay pretty.
Here’s Perry Nickleston of Stop Chasing Pain showing the shoe variation:
3) Develops useful upper body strength and can help rehab/prevent shoulder issues
Notice that I didn’t say functional? I don’t want to go on the “functional training rant” so I’ll send you over to Dean Somerset, because he can say it better than I.
The TGU has similar upper body demands as dance, such as being asked to roll on the floor, and stand up, land in a roll to the floor, balance on one arm, etc.
And I’m sorry to say this, but science has shown that most dancers (not all of you lovely people!) have brutal upper body strength.
I’m currently working with a dancer who says that rolling on the floor, and having push herself up off the floor from a lying position really hurts her elbows. Why? Because she doesn’t know how to coordinate her obliques and shoulders together with her lower body, so the path of least resistance just happens to be the bones that articulate to create her elbow. Not cool!
Fortunately, TGUs can help with this issue.
Not only that, but in a TGU you’re using both arms in two completely different ways- The supporting arm is working in a closed chain, creating rotational movement by pushing into the floor, while the top arm is working open chain, developing shoulder stability in an overhead position integrated with the whole body.
In the photo above, my bottom arm is closed chain (contact with the floor), and the top arm is working open chain (free!).
The sequence in which muscles fire changes depending on whether you’re working in a closed or open chain, and with the TGU you get both at the same time. That’s a lot of awesome stuff happening at once!
In dance, even ballet sometimes, you will need to support your body with your arms (or just one arm), in an awkward, rotated position, and sometimes you need to lift people. So you’d better train both those abilities outside the studio.
If you have cranky shoulders, or too much shoulder mobility as is common in many dancers (making dislocation a dangerous possibility), the TGU just might be your money exercise. I’ve heard a colleague of mine refer to the TGU as one of his favourite shoulder rehab exercises, and I can see why.
In fact, when my shoulders are feeling crappy, TGUs often help. And from all the typing I do for this blog, sometimes my right wrist gets sore, but TGUs always seem to make it feel better.
Dean Somerset agrees, and I quote him from THIS excellent piece he wrote on the TGU:
“You also have to stabilize the kettlebell from rotating around your wrist, which takes a lot of rotator cuff involvement, making this a much more involved shoulder training movement compared to endless external rotations with a band.”
So there you go- A totally badass shoulder rehab exercise that doesn’t require elastic bands or cables. You’re welcome.
4) Mimics dance movement
It’s like a weighted dance-move.
The way the TGU felt like a dance move was what initially attracted me to it.
It’s important for dancers to understand why an exercise will help them become stronger for dance and, because this movement has some moments that feel “dancey” it helps the dancer to feel more motivated to do actually do it.
Can you see how this:
Is similar to THIS:
You don’t have to be a genius to see the parallels. (But apparently you do need to be a genius to spell parallel correctly the first time…)
Building a solid TGU will also help immensely with floor-work in dance. If you have the strength to roll off the floor with a heavy thing over your face, you will for sure have the requisite strength and coordination to roll around on the ground and be in complete control, without screwing any of your joints.
And if you happen to be a bit more of a pointy person, then the more lightly you can roll on the floor the happier your protruding bones will be. I happen to not be a very pointy person. My tibial tuberosity is pretty much non-existant.
Unless you’re me!
I also have enough muscle on my back and shoulders to cushion them, and I can’t even round my lower back (lumbar flex) enough to feel those vertebrae grinding on the floor. I was built to roll on the ground. But I seem to be more an exception than the rule, so having the strength to not weight bear completely on all your pointy bits will likely help you appreciate floor work a bit more.
5) Exposes all your limitations
This is a good thing. It’s good to put your ego in it’s place once in a while. Like when you go to a dance class and every exercise is 9 bars of 17 counts and you can’t pick any of it up so you laugh your way through class. Not that that’s ever happened to me. This week…
But anyway, there are so many individual phases of the TGU, each capable of revealing your weaknesses. Good news, because now you know exactly what you can work on and you can start to become better, stronger, faster, and all that Daft Punk tells us to become.
For example, in the first roll to elbow you can tell a lot about someone’s preferred way to rotate. Are the obliques creating the torso rotation along with help from the lats and glutes? Or do you create momentum from your neck, thrusting your ribs, or kicking up a leg? These habits are all quite common, and the sooner you can become aware of them the better because if you’re cheating rotation in a TGU, you’re probably cheating it every where else.
6) Builds insane amounts of body awareness
As Tony Gentilcore references in THIS hilariously informative article, Gray Cook has referred to the Turkish get-up as being loaded-yoga (which to me means coffee-yoga-bacon). Yoga being an activity that requires you to calm your mind, breathe, and feel the positions you’re moving through.
In fact, one of my favourite experimental sessions I’ve done recently involved super-setting TGUs with sun salutations. It was all kinds of bendy-strong awesome.
So back to body awareness. It’s pretty obvious- The demands of the TGU to move through multiple planes, while centering your body efficiently under a weight, and not dislocating a shoulder or getting your face smashed require that you know exactly what each part of your body is doing at each phase of the movement.
I don’t think I need to make a strong case for how important body awareness is for dancers. Dance IS body awareness.
7) Helpful for teaching anti-extension
I don’t have stats on this, but I’d say that one of the most common issues dancers need to overcome in their training is learning how NOT to extend when they don’t need to. By extend I mean arching the lower back and allowing the ribcage to flare up, or extending the neck by thrusting the chin forward and up.
These are all helpful cheats to create forward momentum and find stability, but they aren’t highly effective long-term I’m afraid.
I love the TGU for teaching anti-extension because it allows you to develop this awareness in all planes of movement- Rotation, laterally, and in the saggital plane (forward and back).
It is common on the first roll up to the elbow for trainees to accomplish the rotation by arching through the lower back, and flaring the ribcage. You can see a good demo of this in the video below:
Learning to control excessive extension in the context of a TGU is incredibly helpful for teaching dancers to own the true power of their anterior core in conjunction with rotational movement, a stressful environment (remember that big ass weight over your head?), with a heavy demand for shoulder and hip control without using their common bendy dance cheats.
8) Fundamentals, transitional moments, and forward/backwards movement in one exercise
Turkish get-ups are like watching a baby grow up in fast motion.
I’m into teaching movement developmentally, progressing from lying supine, rolling over, crawling, trying to stand up and then stepping.
Unfortunately, as we grow older and learn new ways of moving (or not moving), we can “forget” these helpful developmental phases, which were so important in teaching us to move efficiently and pain-free when we were young.
Re-learning to roll and crawl can have an amazing effect on your physical performance, as well as your body’s well-being and risk of injury, and being able to crawl and roll are essential for TGU mastery. It rewires your nervous system with the fundamentals it needs to do complex movements more easily.
Ignoring the fundamentals of movement is like trying to put icing on a cake that you haven’t baked yet. And as much as a bowl of icing mixed into cake batter sounds awesome, it’s not a cake no matter how much you pretend.
As Dr. Kathy Dooley writes in this excellent article on crawling, as babies we instinctively needed to master crawling before moving to the next movement milestone, but years of sitting and poor movement patterning can rob us of our right to crawl:
Baby You knew how to [crawl] without being taught. But you didn’t do it before your joints were backed up with perfectly equilibrated stability points. Your anterior and posterior functional slings worked in unison on a stable trunk.
Then, you were stuck behind a desk for 12 years of schooling. Add potentially decades to that if you have a desk job. So, jumping right into quadruped ambulation may not go well. People who crawl after years in absentia end up with joint pain.
Remember: Baby You used perfect stability points on a stable trunk that Adult You currently may be missing.
Crunches don’t do it, no matter how many you do. Baby You didn’t do crunches. Trunk stability will have to be earned back like Baby You earned it. Learn to breathe again, as you did at 4 months.
Another beauty of the TGU lies the transitions. Has any dance teacher ever emphasized the importance of the transitions between movements? I bet.
TGUs are an excellent opportunity to own the transitional phases, and you’ll feel immediately if they aren’t happening smoothly because remember that heavy thing right above your face? Slow down these transitions and have fun getting ridiculously strong.
And then, after you’ve transitioned from lying, to kneeling, you have to stand up integrating bipedal propulsion into the equation. And THEN you have to reverse the movement all the way to the floor. The word “retrograde” still gives me nightmares… Thank you improv class.
9) Promotes cross-lateralization and addresses asymmetries
Lateralization refers to how some cognitive functions tend to be dominated by one side of the brain or the other.
Asymmetries is another word you need to be a genius to spell correctly the first time.
Cross-lateralization refers to the ability to coordinate the right and left sides of the body. In this article Sharon Krull explains the importance of crossing the midline and cross lateral movement for the healthy function of our brains as we develop :
“Crossing the midline” refers to the ability to move a part of the body– such as a hand, foot or eye– into the space of the other hand, foot or eye. Being able to cross the midline indicates that the child has reached the point in his or her development that the right and left side of the brain are working in tandem.
Unfortunately, sometimes we “forget” how to perform cross-lateral movements, or we get stuck moving in patterns wherein we only cross the midline in one way. In dance, we can get stuck in patterns like this, such as always turning on our preferred leg (generally the left leg, turning to the right).
It is completely normal for dancers to develop lateral biases, but as explained in this review, working consistently to re-establish some sense of symmetry might be useful for preventing injuries.
“In an ideal world, dancers would be totally balanced in their physical and technical training on both sides of their body. They would be able to perform any of these dance tasks equally on either leg and to either side, and thus provide a “perfect,” symmetrically balanced instrument for the choreographer. Realistically, it is more likely that a trained dancer has an asymmetrical body structure, a preference for learning and performing specific skills on one leg or one side, and a dance technique that is functionally asymmetrical—that is, dance skills are performed more proficiently on one leg or side than the other.”
And as the same review describes, we can see that dancers tend to favor using one leg for support, depending on the movement taking place,
“Strong right turning preferences were identified in both studies, but this right bias did not necessarily carry over to other skills, which varied between right and left. A right preference for balance was evident when balance was challenged (as in piqué) When range of motion (ROM) was the issue, however (in battement à la seconde and ronde de jambe the balance preference switched to the left leg.”
I’d like to see a ballet include fouettee turns to the left. Yeah… One day.
So how do TGUs come into play? A well executed Turkish get-up requires the brain to coordinate the right and left sides of the body (and brain), and seeing how dance causes us to move in preferred patterns, especially when rehearsing repertoire, there are likely a lot of cross-lateral gaps that need some filling.
To sum up: Practicing TGUs on both sides is good for lopsided dancer brain. When you try them out, be aware which side is easier for you. Can you rotate better to the right or to the left? Which direction do you turn better to in dance? *hint* the results will probably add up.
10) TGUs can help you improve your balance
We all just want balance like THIS:
So how can TGUs help with balance?
As described here by Strong First leader Brandon Hetzler, the TGU stimulates all 3 systems that contribute to balance:
- Vestibular system– You must know the orientation of the body with respect to gravity and be able to adjust your position accordingly.
- Proprioceptive system– You must know where your body is in space throughout the movement.
- Visual system– You must have your eyes on the weight throughout the movement.
You cannot get that bang for your buck doing weird “functional” things on a bosu ball.
How to get started
So I bet by now you’re totally stoked to start adding TGUs into your life. But hold on there, cowboy. Don’t just grab a weight and start flinging it around. I recommend to break down the movement into it’s individual chunks, and mastering each one before moving on to the next.
Here’s how I would break it down (others may not agree with me, but that’s ok, there’s a lot of ways to skin a cat):
1) Practice the first roll up to elbow on it’s own. Initially getting off the floor is arguably the hardest part of the whole movement. If you can do this easily with bodyweight, add in a shoe, as demonstrated in the video above. When you stop dropping the shoe, add in a reasonably weighted kettlebell. When you can do 5 reps with a weight, move along to the next step.
2) Up to halfway. While probably not technically the halfway point, I like to call the high bridge position half-way. Some people don’t care about the high bridge, but I do. You need a good high bridge in dance, so I say you should do it. I like to visualize my hips stretching out at the top of the bridge.
It’s not wrong not to do this phase, but you’re going to use this position in dance, so I recommend that you practice it in a TGU. When you feel solid going up to high bridge and back down with your bodyweight, try adding the shoe, then try adding the weight, same as before.
High bridge position
3) You’re ready to stand up! Same progression as before: Wrap your brain around the movement, use a shoe, and then add in a weight.
As Mike Roberston recommends in his article HERE:
DO NOT go out and try this Day 1 with a heavy kettlebell. Work through the positions/steps with body weight first, or even with a shoe on your fist. Please take the time to really feel this lift out. I often tell my clients to pause for a 2 count at each position, as if they’re getting their picture taken at a photo shoot. Beginners are notorious for blowing through this lift, and not really milking all of its benefits. When in doubt, slow it down!
I agree 100%. One of my favourite ways to really juice all the vitamin T out of a get-up is to hold each individual position for one or two breaths. And I mean real deep breaths with complete exhalations that make your CNS want to spaz.
You probably won’t be doing more than one complete repetition per side with weight, and you shouldn’t feel totally destroyed by the end of that one rep, so choose a weight that feels reasonable, and that doesn’t make you fear for your life.
I’m also going to add in that it is highly valuable to get a skilled professional to coach you through a get-up at least once.
Initially, I learned from a Youtube video, and I was doing ok, but realize that this is not a complete education. There are many subtle nuances and ways to tweak your technique that change the way it feels, and the efficacy of the movement.
And from a general fitness perspective, a lot of typical “gym” exercises don’t ever allow us to create rotational movement, using all sorts of points of contact with our bodies on the floor, providing for a very rich sensory experience (while looking totally badass). I urge you to get out of saggital plane only workouts, and out of the seated exercise machines.
Get down on the floor and get up. And then back down. Feel the rotation necessary, coordinating efficiently from all parts of your body.
Try the first roll + shoe. Do it 5 times without dropping the shoe. See if you can accomplish this in a week (you totally can). Progress it from there. Let me know how it goes in the comments below.
The Turkish get-up is an exercise I include in my latest brain child, Dance Stronger– A book + training program + community that gives you the tools to develop dance-specific strength for improved performance and less injuries. Check it out and see how to include the TGU into your training routine.
Click the image above to get the first two chapters of Dance Stronger for free. Yay!
I’m not here to hate on dance conditioning classes. Much.
In fact I’m not totally qualified to hate on dance conditioning classes because I don’t have very much first hand experience participating in them. Because sadly many dance studios I went to didn’t have that option.
Even Ryerson didn’t have one, though I know many university dance programs do.
Indeed many a dance studio, and many a dance program offer a conditioning class of some sort. This is a good thing.
What I find concerning is that most dance conditioning classes are about as safe and effective as Gumby’s attempt to max out on the bench.
Don’t get me wrong, I am stoked that so many dance schools recognize the need for supplementary conditioning. I’m happy we all agree that the physical stimulus in a typical dance class isn’t enough to elicit improvements in fitness and strength beyond a certain point. I am sad, however, to observe how these classes can often exacerbate some of the issues dancers are already dealing with, rather than make them stronger and less prone to said issues.
Like, your spine hates you from back-bends and then your conditioning class makes you do planks. But they look like this:
And you hold THAT for 3 minutes. And then your back hurts more. But it can’t be because of the planks because those are good for you. Your teacher compliments your sweet pants, but shouldn’t she (or he) be correcting your position?
How dance conditioning classes drop the ball
- Inappropriate exercise selection.
- Inappropriate timing in the schedule.
- Too much volume/intensity.
- Under-qualified, inexperienced teachers.
- No emphasis on educating dancers on how exercises should feel, or that pain isn’t good.
Let me illustrate with a few examples from the real world (although here’s one from this fake internet world, too. This website hurts my soul little).
The inappropriately designed conditioning class by an under-qualified instructor.
I recently met with a client to speak about a project she was working on for her thesis project, and we got on the topic of a very prestigious summer training program that she had participated in last year.
This program happened to include a conditioning class (yay) but according to her- and I consider her to be educated on what is and is NOT an acceptable form of dance cross-training- they did tons of variation of crunches, and exercises that made her hip flexors strain (boo). It got so bad that she decided to express this to the instructor, who responded by saying, “then what should we do instead?”.
First, someone who has been hired to instruct dancers on how to get stronger, presumably with the goal of dancing better, should understand that crunches are not the best choice of exercise for dancers.
And second, if a dancer tells you she is feeling something wrong during an exercise and asks for an alternative, you should be able to give her one. Because you have 5 up your sleeve for this very reason.
To me, this screams unprofessional and under-qualified, and considering the injury rate in dancers is about 80% (but lets be honest, more like 100%), dance schools should do their research before hiring a teacher who is more “boot-camp” than dance cross-training. Someone who will build them up, not break them down.
This class was also poorly scheduled, sandwiched between morning classes and afternoon rehearsals.
When is the best time? I’m not totally sure. I’d like to ask Matthew Wyon that question.
The dance school that offers Zumba as their fitness class.
Ok so I do recognize that for people who don’t do much of anything, much less dance, Zumba can be an intense workout that is probably a totally acceptable thing for them to be doing.
My issue is when dance studios decide to forgo offering a legit conditioning class for dancers because they already have Zumba as an option. They’ve confused “dance fitness” with “fitness for dancers”. It’s not the same thing.
I wouldn’t be caught dead teaching a Zumba class to dancers. No offense, Zumba. I know you’ve changed people’s lives and that’s cool. I just wouldn’t do you. We can still be friends, though.
Many times that I’ve reached out to dance schools in Toronto to talk about the need for dance conditioning classes I’ve been disregarded because they already have their own version of dance fitness, which often is some kind of boot-camp, aerobics, Prancersise-type program that makes me want to cry a little.
And Zumba isn’t dance training either. Want to learn some sweet moves you can use in the real world (whatever that is)? Take an actual dance class. Or do this.
The conditioning class that does the right exercises the wrong way
I had the pleasure of training a lovely young lady who’s dance studio had a conditioning class. They did exercises that I consider good, like push-ups. However, when she told me one day that she did 100 push-ups in said class I was suspicious. In sessions with me, she has difficulty doing a controlled negative.
“Are you sure you were doing push-ups?” I asked. “Well, not like the way we do in our sessions. We have to do he them to the beat of the music ”.
Understandably, when forced to go to the beat of the music her form gets a bit sloppy.
I know you like being on the beat (I do, too) but that does not mean you should have to do push-ups to the beat of a song that is way too fast. Especially if you can’t do one proper push-up. This is another another case where the instructor should know better, allow them to do push-ups at their own pace, and provide appropriate regressions when necessary. Which in the beginning is almost always.
Teaching a group of dancers how to move well, get strong, and get them excited about injury prevention isn’t easy. Often you’ll be met with a group of egos with a no pain no gain mindset. It’s much easier to pander to their wants than to educate them.
They may ask for a stretch class. Teach them neutral spine and how to breathe instead. Make them earn the right to stretch.
I think what’s lacking from many conditioning classes is a measurable goal. How else can you tell your students are making progress? Unless the goal is to move around a bunch, sweat, and feel the burn.
The actual goals of a dance conditioning class
- Educate dancers on proper movement quality and it’s importance.
- Get the dancers stronger to improve their work and recovery capacity.
- Help the dancers build body awareness.
- Balance patterns of overuse to prevent injuries.
- Serve as a mock “screen” to get a sense of whether a dancer is over-trained, injured, or recovering poorly.
Now I’m not saying that I am the most brilliant instructor ever when it comes to dance conditioning and strength training. I’m just saying that I have certain teaching standards, systems and philosophies that I feel actually make for effective strength development and reduce the risk of injury rather than increase it.
Some strategies to ensure your dance conditioning classes don’t suck
Music is for improving energy, not a beat to work out to. Not every dancer can do exercises at the same tempo. It is cruel and inappropriate to assume all dancers can do push-ups to the beat of Latch. Featuring Sam Smith. Possibly the best song ever.
Be constantly assessing the dancers. Treat every exercise as an assessment. Watch for signs of poor recovery. Ask if they find an exercise painful, where they feel it, how challenging it feels. Don’t just stand there and count the reps out.
Do an appropriate warm up. This should include some work on breathing, core activation, and mobility work/dynamic stretching if needed.
Provide a few alternatives (progressions, regressions, lateralizations) for each exercise. No two dancers are the same and they should not be treated as such.
Include these 3 components: Corrective exercise for movement quality, strength development, and metabolic work. Your ratio of exercises from each category may vary depending on the class. Some classes seem to miss the first 2 and do only the metabolic conditioning (circuits, inervals, etc).
Explain why you’re getting them to do the selected exercises and how it will help their dancing. Dancers are much more likely to want to do exercises if they see how it will translate to their performance or help them overcome and prevent injuries. “This will help your turns”, is a better motivator than “feel the burn”.
Spend minimal time stretching. I don’t want to go into this rant right now, but stretching is not the most effective use of time if you only have one hour per week to help your dancers. Dancers need help controlling the flexibility they already have, not getting more bendy and unstable.
Don’t kill the dancers with high volume and intensity. Especially if it’s the end of the day, or the middle of the day. Or the start of their day… Just help them work at an intensity that is reasonable but still challenging.
I struggled for a while teaching classes not knowing how to structure them properly, how to ensure dancers were performing exercises appropriately, and get them in the right mindset. Maybe you don’t agree with everything I’m saying, and if you don’t, I really hope you have a better way, and that you’ll tell me about it so I can do better, too.
I’ll leave you with these final points. Remember:
Zumba is not conditioning for dancers.
Exercises shouldn’t absolutely be done to the beat of the music.
And please don’t treat your dancers like they’re in a boot-camp. They deserve better. They deserve to be built up, not shattered.