Last Friday, I had the privilege of talking with a group of dancers at Towson University. My friend, Nicole Martinelle, artistic director of Deep Vision Dance Company and adjunct professor at Towson University and UMBC Dance Departments, invited me to speak to her students about core stability. She explained to me that although she speaks about it in class and the students talk about it, she was not sure if they really understood what it means to have a strong core. She is not the only one. There are many ideas, misconceptions, exercises, yeah sayers, and nay sayers when it comes to discussing core stability. In fact, it is a subject that has been beaten to death by fitness professionals. Do this. Do that. Don’t do this. Don’t do that. It’s no wonder that no one knows exactly what core stability is and how to train it.
I know what you are probably saying. “But don’t dancers have strong cores already?” Not necessarily. “But they are dancing all the time,” you might add. Yes, they are dancing, taking class, attending rehearsals. But what are they doing outside of class, before their rehearsals, to train their bodies so they can handle more classes, more rehearsals? What are they doing to train their bodies so as to prevent injuries? Dancers suffer from knee pain, back pain, neck pain, hip pain, foot pain. They are athletes, and if they are not careful with their bodies, if they are not taking care of them properly, they will begin to breakdown. As a dancer, I have injured and re-injured myself many times. My last incident was with my back (you can read more about this in My Back Story blog post). I have learned to work with my body, not against it. I can relate to the dancers in Nicole’s class. A couple of them were dealing with back issues. One had a brace on her leg to protect her knee. Could they have done something differently so as to not have injured themselves? Could they be doing something now to help them recover from their injuries?
After introductions, we got right to the point of my visit. I asked the dancers to define their “core.” What makes up your core? (I personally try to refer to this as the “trunk” when talking to my dancers and fitness clients), but for this article, I will use the word “core.” Your trunk, or core, encompasses all the musculature that surrounds the spinal column – your front, your back, your hips – all the muscles that help to stabilize the spine. When we talk about core stability, what we are really talking about is how to help stabilize your spine. When your spine is rigid and stable, you are able to transfer force more efficiently from your legs and hips to your arms and shoulders. Basically, between your upper and lower body. Any looseness in the middle leaks energy and has the potential to cause injury by loading the spine in a weak position. The more stable you are, the more power you have. A strong core, or trunk, is critical for both injury prevention and most efficient use of power. For dancers, this means jumping higher, leaping farther, turning better.
Think about what you do when someone tries punch you in the stomach. What is your instinctive reaction? Do you draw in, or suck in your belly? Or do you brace it? What if someone tried to push you? Do you let them? Or do you make yourself rigid, so as to not allow yourself to fall over? You make yourself rigid. You stabilize yourself against that force. The spine wants to stay strong and happy. It wants to stay in its normal anatomical shape. So how do we train the trunk to best accomplish this?
We train the function. And the function of our core is to resist motion. So we train its function – anti-lateral flexion, anti-rotation, anti-extension, anti-flexion.
The first exercise I had the dancers demonstrate was the plank, the most basic and simplest way to get someone thinking about their core and what it means to stabilize the spine. You can begin just by raising the hips and keeping your trunk tight.
Progress to the knees and eventually, the feet. A terrific way to begin your core training and focus on training anti-flexion as well as anti-extension.
From the feet, when you are ready and able to hold a plank for at least one minute, you can progress to lifting one leg off the floor while continuing to remain rigid. Progress to one arm off the floor and then eventually, opposite arm and leg off the floor. Each time, challenging your body to remain rigid, to keep the hips in line, to keep the trunk braced.
When you are ready and feel that you have mastered these progressions, you can add an additional tool to your program, the band. A great way to continue to challenge your body and trunk. Begin with the prone plank first. Start with both feet and progress to lifting a leg off the floor.
Side plank is a great anti-lateral flexion exercise and one that many find extremely challenging. Again, begin with the basics and then move to the more advanced progressions when ready. These progressions include lifting your top leg, lifting your bottom leg and then adding the band work into your program.
Quadruped, or Bird dog as some call it, is another great exercise to train anti-rotation and anti-flexion. Begin with single arm raise, single leg raise, progress to opposite arm and leg raise.
More advanced exercises include the stability ball roll out (anti-flexion), Pallof press (anti-rotation), waiter carry and farmer carry (anti-lateral flexion).
Remember, to train your “core,” train the function. Your spine will thank you!!
These videos are so helpful! Please leave them up so we can refer back when our form starts to get sloppy.