by Jan Dunn, MS
Aloha! — Happy August! The posting below is one I’ve wanted to bring you for a long time–discussing “core control” (alias “center” in dance). It’s something that’s very important, yet not that many people – dancers included – really understand what it’s all about. (And thanks to Denver Dance Medicine
Associate Sarah Graham, PT, provider for Colorado Ballet and many Broadway touring companies, for her help in clarifying the information from a medical perspective).
I hope that after reading it (along with Part Two, coming in a few weeks!), you’ll have a better idea of what all this “core” talk is, and how to best incorporate it into your dance life. My best to all –
For some time I’ve been wanting to bring you an article on “core control”. I put it in quotation marks because it’s a term that conveys different things to different people, and not everyone really understands what it means. In the dance world, we often refer to “center”, as in “find your center”–but many dancers do not really understand what that means, either.
The term “core control” is everywhere in the media / fitness world, and many people think it means “abs”. And abdominal muscles (one in particular) are very much involved in “core”– but there’s much more to it than that. From reading this post, I hope you come away with a better understanding of exactly what it means, and hopefully get some hints and cues on how better to incorporate it into your life–both in dance and in everyday movement, because it is important in everything our body does!
So much has been written / so much could be said–it could be the topic of several different posts. But over the years, teaching dance / Pilates / Franklin, I’ve evolved a specific way of teaching it to people, using a fairly short version that makes sense to everyone.
In the medical field, it is the same as back stabilization–in other words, when your back and torso are strong and able to provide support for your entire spine and limbs—because your arms and legs are going to be more fully able to move and be supported by your torso, to do all of those gorgeous extensions and powerful movements we love to do and see in dance, when your “core” musculature is strong.
So with that said, from here on out, I’m going to use the term “back stabilization”, which you now know means “core”.
This post is going to be in two-parts: In this first segment, I’ll do a lot of explaining. For the second one, I want to show to you some specific exercises and things you can do at home or in the studio to help increase the strength of all the muscles we’re talking about here–i.e, ways to help improve your back stabilization / “Core Control” / “center”.
The Four-Legged Stool
There are a good number of muscles / muscle groups involved in back stabilization, but we’re going to simplify it and talk about the 4 primary ones. When teaching, I like to use the analogy of a 4-legged stool.
Think of it this way:
You have a 4-legged stool made up of 4 main parts, all of which are necessary to keep the stool (your torso) upright and strong, and in balance.
1–One leg of the stool is the Transverse Abdominal muscle, or TA for short.
This is the deepest of the 4 abdominal muscles–on top of it is the Rectus Abdominus (RA), or the “6-pack” muscle (whose main function is to flex – bend forward – the torso, not to provide back stabilization). Under the RA are the obliques, running in two different directions. They help stabilize the torso, but they are often over-used, and then the really important one, the TA, is not working in the most beneficial way.
The TA is right next to the abdominal cavity (and one of its jobs is to help keep the abdominal organs in place). Its fibers run horizontally, across the torso, all the way from the lower ribs down to the pubic area. It wraps around the body and integrates into a large fascia (connective tissue) in the back (see illustration above). So it’s literally almost like a corset around the torso. Researchers have identified the lower portions of the TA, the ones in the low belly / just above the pubic area, as the crucial ones active in back stabilization.
2 – the 2nd leg of the stool is the Pelvic Floor.
These are a group of muscles that line the inside of the pelvis–think of a lining on the inside of a bowl. They attach to various places on the pelvis / legs, and keep the organs (or baby!) from dropping out. Here’s the important piece about the pelvic floor muscles:
–they are neurologically connected to the TA, and when everything is working well, they co-contract to provide support for the torso from the front and underneath.
3 – the 3rd leg of the stool are small muscles in your lumbar spine (low back), called the Multifidus.
They are part of a large group of muscles called the back extensors. These muscles extend (lift up) your body when you flex (bend over) your spine, keeping the body upright and tall.
Deep in the spine, they attach to and span 3 vertebrae, and work to stabilize the joints at each segmental section. They are some of the smallest, yet most powerful, of the muscles that give support to the spine. They run the whole length of the spine, but researchers have identified the portions in the lumbar spine as the most important in back stabilization. If they are functioning properly, they help take pressure off the lumbar discs. The multifidus in this area have more nerve endings than any other muscles in the body –which tells you something about how important they are!
4 – the 4th leg of the stool are the Psoas Major muscles–one on each side of the spine.
The full name is Iliopsoas, and is actually two different muscles, (sometimes three) ending in a common tendon which attaches to the leg. The lower part, the iliacus, is deep inside the pelvis and is primarily responsible for flexing your hip (bringing your leg up, as in a develope). The psoas major, which is the important part for our discussion, runs all the way down the spine, starting at the 12th rib, crossing the front of the hip and attaching, along with the iliacus, to the Lesser Trochanter on the inside of the femur (thigh bone) towards the back. As it runs along the spine, it attaches not only to the vertebrae, but also to each disc. It functions as a spinal stabilizer.
Because there is one on each side of the spine, each psoas major needs to be equally balanced in terms of both strength and flexibility. (Remember those 4dancers.org articles on Causes of Dance Injuries, in Feb. 2012? One of the principal components of injury prevention is an equal balance of strength and stretch). If the psoas is too tight, for example, it will cause too much lumbar curve (“swayback”), as well as affect the hip joint. And if one is tighter / weaker than its partner on the other side of the spine…well, you can see where this might be a problem with back stabilization, balance, technique, etc.
In a healthy back, all 4 of these muscles / muscle groups are working together synergistically, in a neurologically controlled manner to provide good back stabilization and torso support. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen, even with dancers.
Any time we have an injury, anywhere in the body, these muscles are affected, and the normal timing / neurological working of this group to provide back stabilization is thrown off. For example, when you sprain your ankle, the multifidus on the opposite side from the injury immediately start to atrophy (weaken), which then affects your torso / balance–everything.
Cues that can aid back stabilization
1-Torso alignment (“posture”):
When the three main bony parts of the body – the head / ribcage / pelvis – are in good alignment, they are balanced on top of one another, and the spine is a neutral position. That means that all the curves of the spine – the cervical curve (neck), the thoracic curve (ribcage), the lumbar curve (low back), and the sacral curve (bottom of the spine) – are all in good relationship to each other and balance each other out. The cervical/ lumbar curves are in the same degree of curvature, and the thoracic / sacral curves are the same (see drawings) i.e, one is not more exaggerated than the other–so we are not standing in any negative postures, such as “swayback” (too much lumbar curve), or “forward head” (head jutting forward).
An important thing to remember concerning the spinal curves is that because they have to balance each other out, supporting the body’s weight against gravity, if one is out of alignment, the others all have to compensate. So if you have a “forward head” / too much cervical curve, the lumbar curve (it’s partner, that goes in the same direction) also has to go out of alignment, and increase the extent of it’s curve, in order to keep the body upright–make sense ??
There are many images that dance teachers often use to help students achieve this optimal alignment — “think of 3 boxes balanced one on top of another” is one I’ve heard often. My own favorite cue, and one I’ve found works for many people, is to make sure that the sternum (breastbone, right between the bust / middle of the chest) is directly vertical over the pubic bone.
Look straight ahead and take your normal posture–and I don’t mean your best classroom dance alignment! Because what you do in / out of class may be totally different in terms of your alignment /“posture”, and most of us spend way more time outside the classroom than in it.
Now carefully turn your head (without changing anything in your body alignment) and look at your image in the mirror. What do you see ? Most of us (even dancers!) stand with our ribs slightly sunken back of our pelvis, and possibly in too much lumber curve (“swayback”). Now put a finger on the sternum, and a finger on the pubic bone, and adjust your alignment so that they are in a straight vertical line. Do you feel your lower abdominal muscles kick in when you do that correctly ?? That is your TA working to better your back stabilization !
(And by the way, if you feel like you are falling forward on your face, that is to be expected: If your alignment has been slightly back of where it should be all these years, and suddenly it’s adjusted to a more biomechanically correct position, it may well feel “not natural” and like you’re about to fall over!)
I like the Eric Franklin drawing that I’ve included here–it’s similar to the “3 boxes” image, having more “boxes” or parts, but it gets the idea across–everything balanced on top of one another.
2 – Foot cues:
Many of us have heard the old “triangle” image of foot alignment–to have your weight on your big toe / little toe / center of the heel. There are some other, more recent cues that I like a lot better.
One in particular comes from research that was done in Europe, on ballet dancers. The researchers were looking at hamstring (back of the thigh) activation–because that muscle group is one of the weakest in many dancers, and is frequently injured. They were using electromyography (electrical pads placed on the skin, to monitor muscle activation) to see if specific images would generate better hamstring use. They were not looking at feet in this study, but they discovered that a particular cue given for the hamstring research, while it did work for hamstring activation, also brought the foot into a “neutral alignment” – meaning that the foot was neither “rolling in” (pronation) nor “rolling out” (supination) – but was instead well balanced with the weight evenly distributed. (See this PDF for more information on the research: P L-B article on HS & foot cue)
That particular cue was this:
Put a finger on the center of your heel bone (the calcaneous)- this is just to stimulate the nerves and let the brain know that we are focusing on that part of the foot. Standing on your feet, imagine a tree root growing diagonally back, into the ground (see drawing). It’s important that the tree root / arrow / whatever image you are using, goes diagonally back, not straight down. That image should bring your foot into a better standing alignment. (It’s fascinating – to me, anyway – that the direction of the “diagonal back” is the same as the actual bone matrix in the heel!).
I also like to cue with another tree root in the forefoot, this one going straight down: a point between the 2nd and 3rd toe joint, which is at the center of the forefoot. Be sure to use the point between the joints, not the toes themselves–because our toes may not necessarily be straight.
3 – Scapular (shoulder blade) stabilization:
In both the dance and fitness world, people can focus too much on the lower body–abdominals / lower back, etc. – and not realize or remember that the upper back is equally important, and works hand in hand with the muscles we’ve discussed above to provide overall torso support.
The topic of Scapular Stabilization could also provide a separate article, and at some point I will do that–but for now, I just want you to realize that it, too is equally important in overall back stabilization.
Let’s briefly discuss “the lats”, for example – the Latissimus Dorsi, one of the largest muscles in the body (see drawing). When strong and working properly, it provides support for the upper spine / frees the shoulder girdle–which consists of your scapula (shoulder blades), clavicle (collarbone), and arms–for full range of movement and expression, and works in concert with the TA to provide overall back stabilization.
Try this little exercise to see how important these muscles are:
Stand at arms length (straight) from a dresser / ledge, where your hands can rest on something that is just lower than your shoulders (about chest height), palms down (see photo). Stand in your best overall alignment, with those 3 main body parts (head / ribcage / pelvis) hopefully one on top of another. Just press your hands down onto the ledge–do you immediately feel the area under your arm in back activate? Those are your “lats”. Do you also notice, at the same, that there is a tightening of the lower abdominal fibers, the TA? That’s because there is a neural connection between the TA and the Latissimus, providing a co-contraction to help stabilize the back. Cool, eh ?!
OK, that’s about what I wanted to cover in this basic introduction to “core control”, better known as “back stabilization”. In the next segment, I want to show you some of the specific exercises I teach dancers (and non-dancers) to help them improve and work on this very important part of the body. In the meantime, stand tall, and remember–breastbone in line with public bone!
Editor Jan Dunn is a dance medicine specialist currently based on the island of Kauai, Hawaii, where she is owner of Pilates Plus Kauai Wellness Center and co-founder of Kauai Dance Medicine. She is also a Pilates rehabilitation specialist and Franklin Educator. A lifelong dancer / choreographer, she spent many years as university dance faculty, most recently as Adjunct Faculty, University of Colorado Dept. of Theatre and Dance. Her 28 year background in dance medicine includes 23 years with the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science (IADMS) – as Board member / President / Executive Director – founding Denver Dance Medicine Associates, and establishing two university Dance Wellness Programs
Jan served as organizer and Co-Chair, International Dance Medicine Conference, Taiwan 2004, and was founding chair of the National Dance Association’s (USA) Committee on Dance Science and Medicine, 1989-1993. She originated The Dance Medicine/Science Resource Guide; and was co-founder of the Journal of Dance Medicine & Science. She has taught dance medicine, Pilates, and Franklin workshops for medical / dance and academic institutions in the USA / Europe / Middle East / and Asia, authored numerous articles in the field, and presented at many national and international conferences.
Ms. Dunn writes about dance wellness for 4dancers and also brings in voices from the dance wellness/dance medicine field to share their expertise with readers.