Some thoughts from my 20 years experience as a physiotherapist.
Dancers are judged by their ability to transform strength into graceful movements. Athletes by their ability to transform coordination into strength and speed. These performances can happen thanks to the perfect synchronisation of many muscles moving some joints and stabilizing others. This coordination work wouldn’t be possible without a stable (but not stiff) core in the centre of the body controlling efficient movement.
As an extreme example – just think of what would happen if our lower back was a piece of rubber. We would certainly be very flexible but what would happen if you tried to stand on one leg and swing the other? Without core stability the whole upper body would be swaying trying to contra balance the leg movement! Or what about lifting our babies or landing from a jump, kicking or throwing a ball? The body needs a point of steadiness (again not stiffness) to allow the extremities to perform efficiently in a relaxed or quick way, with strong or delicate movements.
So where are these core muscles and what do they do?
Core muscles are very deep and located close to the spine because their function is to support it (a bit like a belt) and coordinate segmental movements. We are not usually aware of them because they “work automatically” to support our movements. But bad or exaggerated posture (overarching the lower back), overwork, pregnancy and surgery (for example) can weaken the engagement of the core muscles. Since we are not aware of them when they are working we often won’t notice if they switch off or get lazy. What we do notice though are the results of this laziness in the form of under performance, poor balance, increased muscle strains (especially hamstrings but also shoulder problems, lower back pain) and tiredness to name just a few. In short the movement of whole muscle chains is affected and makes us more vulnerable to injuries.
How can we strengthen the core muscles?
As I said before the function of the core muscles is to support our centre in order to develop efficient movement. This should be a constant in our daily life for dancers, athletes and indeed everyone.
It doesn’t make much sense to follow a regular training regime if afterwards we then go back slouching or swaying for the rest of the day! So we need to understand how to engage the core muscles and how to use them in our daily life.
We can start by walking in a more active way. By using our feet to roll away from the ground rather than sink in it, every step will help to engage the core muscles as well as the whole dorsal leg and gluteal muscles. MBT shoes are the optimal shoes to achieve this activity with each step.
A simple exercise which I use a lot is as follows:
- Stand with feet hip width and toes pointing to the front and imagine your feet are stuck in a cement block that you are desperate to get out of!
- Without moving or twisting your feet try to increasingly rotate your thighs outwards while keeping your knees unlocked.
- You should feel the arch of your feet lifting a bit (keep the ball of the big toe on the ground), tension in the inner thighs, buttocks and…lower abdominal. The upper body should be upright and the pelvis slightly tilted backwards so that the seat bones are pointing to the heels.
- Keep the tension for 6 seconds and relax. Repeat at least x10
- Once you feel familiar with this, shift the weight onto one foot only without side bending the upper body. Move the other leg or your arms or your upper body to challenge your balance.
- You can do this exercise when brushing your teeth, washing the dishes etc.
Core Stability Exercises and Classes
I am reluctant to suggest other exercises because the results are very much related to each person’s ability to engage and feel the core muscles and this needs some supervision.
If you suffers of any back pain and don’t know how to train your core then I would suggest avoiding Pilates classes in big groups with little supervision, or trying the DIY route with DVDs. You may not have someone there to give you the feedback and corrections you need.
My advice would be to find an experienced physiotherapist or instructor for Pilates Body Control and book a 1:1 session. In this way you can be sure that you will train the proper muscles.
Remember – when exercising for core strength you should never experience pain. Prevention is better, cheaper and more fun than cure. Investing in a good instructor will give you the tools to feel and train your body to achieve the highest performance.
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