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Anatomy of Dance: Core Stability for Dancers

Interestingly, very few dancers have good true core control and dynamic stability which often leads to spinal injuries. Also, many dancers are performing the “core” exercises they have learned incorrectly. Often when we ask young dancers what “core” exercises they are doing, they respond with “planks”, “sit ups” etc. This is not necessarily bad, however we can still do these exercises without using our true core, and if done incorrectly can make lower back pain worse.

Your back:

  • Is made up of bones (vertebrae), intervertebral discs (IVDs), muscles and ligaments.
  • In healthy spines, the vertebrae are held in place by the muscles and ligaments.
  • If the core muscles are weak, extra stress is placed on the ligaments and IVDs as they try to hold the spine in place.
  • This lack of core stability is a common cause of lower back pain.

What are the “true” core muscles?

Transverse abdominus: is a large muscle that lies beneath the “six pack”. It acts like a corset to stabilise the trunk.

Multifidus: has many short sections of muscle that run down the side of the spine that act to stabilise each segment of vertebrae.

Pelvic floor: is a group of muscles and ligaments that stretch between the pubic bone and tail bone. It supports pelvic organs (bladder, bowel) and is the base of the core.

Diaphragm: is the main muscle of breathing and when contracting acts as the lid of the core.

These true core muscles are made up mostly of slow twitch muscle fibres which are made for endurance, meaning that these muscles should be working almost all of the time.

The outer unit of muscles (abdominals, erector spinae – large back muscles, obliques etc) are made up of fast twitch muscle fibres and perform large movements of the trunk. Although they are powerful, they fatigue quickly. Often we get back pain because the true core muscles are “asleep” and not doing their job to stabilise the spine. When this happens we rely too much on the large outer muscles to stabilise. These muscles are not made for constant activity and cannot cope with doing the job of the inner core. This is when we can get back pain and tension in our lumbar spine.

Core stability is NOT:

  • A six pack
  • Being able to do over 100 sit ups
  • Doing a five minute plank
  • Being able to “brace” yourself in any position

TRUE core stability is:

  • The ability to control the spine dynamically throughout movement
  • Fine co-oordination of the muscles that control your trunk, not just your abs
  • The ability to adjust the level of control needed depending on the activity
  • Creating a stable base off which to move the limbs
  • Stabilising the mid-section to allow smooth and effective transfer of force through the body

How to activate the core correctly:

It is important to note that core stability exercises are more about motor learning and correct muscle activation rather than brute strength and using the large abdominal muscles i.e. those used while doing sit ups.

It is essential to be able to correctly activate and utilise deep core muscles before any progression is attempted otherwise other large muscle groups will over-compensate.

1) Practise correct breathing technique:

  • Breathe in through your nose and feel for expansion of your lower rib cage
  • Breathe out through an open mouth making a “SSHHH” sound (5 – 6 seconds)

2) Practise contracting your pelvic floor:

  • Lay on back or in 4-point kneeling as illustrated
  • Contract the pelvic floor by attempting to squeeze and lift (slowly like a drawstring) the area between the pubic and tail bone up and in towards your abdomen. Some people like to imagine you are trying to stop the flow of urine in mid-stream
  • Aim to hold this contraction for one breath (with more practice you may be able to hold this contraction for multiple breaths)

3) Practise transverse abdominus activation:

  • Lay on back or 4-point kneeling as illustrated
  • Using two fingers, feel just inside your hip bones as shown
  • Have a cough – you will feel the muscle under your fingers contract then relax (this is transverse abdominus)
  • As you draw your pelvic flooor in and up you should feel this contract. If you do not feel a gentle contraction, imagine you are drawing your pubic bone back and down towards your tail bone; this will feel like a gentle muscle contraction very low in your abdomen. DO NOT ENGAGE YOUR ABDOMINALS.
  • Aim to hold the contraction for one breath (with more practice, aim to hold this contraction multiple breaths)

Now, attempt step 2 and 3 at the same time while EXHALING.

1) Breathe in to relax

2) Breathe out “SSHHH” and at the same time pull your pubic bone towards your tail bone and squeeze and lift your pelvic floor like a drawstring.

Once you have learnt how to engage the correct muscles, your physiotherapist will progress your core exercise program so that you are able to engage these muscles dynamically through movement. Not only will this reduce your risk of injury but also improve your dance performance overall.

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