I know this may be an unpopular truth but hear me out…if you want a core that is strong and functional for dancing, simply increasing the amount of sit-ups you do each day and increasing your plank time to 10 minutes+, isn’t your answer.
If this sounds like you, don’t worry, I feel you! I grew up learning that if you want to improve you posture and performance in dance, one simply needed to do insanely long planks, sit-ups, and of course approximately a million calf raises. There is nothing wrong with these movements, but we want to make sure that the core work we do will translate to our dancing.
After all, the judges don’t care if you do 100 sit-ups every morning, or whether you can do a 10 minute plank, what matters is if your hard work shows up on stage. If you aren’t slowing down and taking the time to work the correct muscles properly, you’re wasting your training time. An Irish Dance competition is a competition based on improving your dancing, not your plank time.
Today, I’m going to teach you what core strength actually is, and why core strength and control is the very first thing you need to focus on if you want to create standout posture, power, and solid technique. Then, I’m going to show you a couple of different exercises to not only strengthen these muscles but help us use them as we move…because we obviously move a lot when we are dancing.
When I say the word “core”, you may think of your abdominal muscles. And yes, your abdominal muscles are part of your core, but there are actually many muscles of your core that are just as important as your abdominals. Your core muscles include all the muscles that reside in the area of the belly and the mid and lower back, hips, shoulders and the neck. Together these muscles stabilize our torso, which in turn helps us generate power and move across the floor efficiently and seemingly effortlessly.
One way I like to think about the importance of our core strength is that of a noodle. Think of a dancer with a weak core as a wet noodle. If you try to apply any type of force to a wet noodle, it wiggles, is out of alignment, and cannot hold any type of shape or produce any type of power. Now think of a dry noodle. You can toss it or wave it in the air, and it will hold its shape. Be like the dry noodle.
And dancers, the core has a HUGE super important job! Here’s what it does:
-Controls and stabilizes the spine and pelvis
-Coordinates all the muscles that control the trunk
-Has the ability to adjust what level of control is needed in each movement (example: You’ll need to generate a lot more power going into a leap then you do doing a hop 1,2,3)
-Create stable base from which limbs work (…the base for your legs!)
-Stabilize mid-section which allows effective transfer of force through body (aka: if you don’t have a stable base, you can’t have powerful movements because power will be lost in your core)
Pretty exciting stuff, right?!?!
Now before you lay on the ground and start doing 100 sit-ups, let’s talk about what effective training looks like. Very few dancers (including myself) naturally do core work correctly, that’s why I’m super-duper passionate about teaching you this!
If you take one thing away from this lesson remember this: We need to learn to contract the core from the INSIDE OUT, not the OUTSIDE IN.
What does that mean?
We have different layers of core muscles. In order for our core to do its job properly, we must be able to activate our deepest core muscles before we activate the outer layers. If you’ve ever wondered why you can do sit-ups for days, but can’t seem to keep your body steady to save your life, you are most likely activating your outer core muscles, but haven’t worked on deep core stability.
Here’s a quick test to see if you are engaging your core from the inside out or outside in:
1.) Lay on your back and place on hand on your belly.
2.) Curl up and notice what your belly does.
3.) Observe: Does it pooch out like the lower case cursive letter “n” or a bread loaf? Or does it stay flat?
If you notice it is pooching out, it most likely means you are engaging you outer core muscles, but not fully engaging your deep core muscles. Instead of doing more and more core, we need to learn how to properly engage your core in the first place. From the inside out.
If you are staying flat, it means you are most likely engaging your deep core muscles first, so these exercises may feel a bit easier for you!
To better work your core from the inside out, we need to understand the muscles of your deep core.
Here are the main ones we’ll be discussing today…
1.) Pelvic floor muscles and diaphragm: The pelvic floor is a group of muscles that acts kind of like a hammock at the bottom of our pelvis to hold all of our organs in place and helps to control our bladder functioning so we don’t pee in our pants every time we land a leap, etc. Yeah, it’s an important muscle group!
The diaphragm is the primary muscle used to help us breathe and is located right under your lungs and heart. When we breathe in, our diaphragm presses downward, creating room for our lungs to fill with air. The pelvic floors lengthens a bit and drops to regulate the pressure in our body. As you exhale the diaphragm relaxes and returns to its original position, as the muscles in the pelvic floor contract, thus pressing upwards, and the belly flattens.
You don’t have to remember every piece of anatomy here, but it IS important to be able to visualize that breathe work during core exercises to implement them properly and work our core from the inside out vs. outside in. We’ll get to more on that later.
2.) Transverse abdominals: This muscles acts like a corset around your midsection. Its main function is to stabilize the pelvis before the arm and legs start to move. If you have an anterior tilt (where your butt sticks out), there is a good chance these muscles are weak because they are in a stretched position, usually combined with tight hip flexors and unstable lower back muscles. It’s important when we do core exercises to think about actively engaging our transverse abdominal muscles. Eventually engaging them becomes easier and we are able to better use them when we dance.
3.) Multifidus: This a small muscle deep in the spine. It works with the pelvic floor and transverse abdominals to stabilize the spine. A lot of time when we try to work our “back” muscles, our large back muscles will take over and these muscles don’t fully do their job. That’s why it’s important that we slow down our movements and figure out how to activate these small yet super important muscles.
Okay okay, let’s dive into the fun stuff of breaking down some of the exercises you can do to start mastering your core strength and control.
Do these exercises 3X through each day: CLICK HERE TO LEARN HOW TO DO THE FOLLOWING EXERCISES!
1.) Pelvic Floor Lifts:
In this exercise, we are going to work on syncing our pelvic floor control and breath. This exercise is not going to feel exhausting, like hill runs or calf raises, but is more about visualizing the movement and finding that sense of control. Remember what we talked about earlier, as you inhale the pelvic floors relaxes and lowers, as the diaphragm expands, and as you exhale the pelvic floor contracts and the diaphragm relaxes back to its starting position.
Sit up straight in your chair, shoulders down and back, growing yourself tall. As you inhale, try to expand your rib cage and breathe into your belly. As you exhale, imagine a the area right under your belly button acting as a vacuum. Imagine the vacuum lightly pulling up the pelvic floor. Imagining that you’re “holding your pee” can help, but don’t force the movement. It’s a light contraction. Practice 10-20 breaths here.
As you exhale in the following exercises, imagine that pelvic floor lift.
2.) Supine pelvic tilts:
In this exercise, we are going to find your transverse abdominals and learn how to engage them. Lay on your back and place your hands right inside the hip bones. Do a cough and feel those muscles tense up under your hands. Those are your transverse abdominals. After you’ve found them, we will work on contracting them. Without coughing, lightly press your back into the ground and tighten the transverse abdominals. Hold for 10s, repeat 5X. Important: We are NOT trying to squeeze your abs as hard as possible, we are just working to contract the deep core muscles.
3.) Dead bugs:
Once you are able to find those deep transverse abdominals, we are able to add some dynamic movement to the exercise. The goal here is not to “feel the burn”, but rather hold the spine steady while moving the arms and legs. Start with pressing the back into the floor as we did earlier, contract the deep core muscles, and this time alternate moving the arms and legs outwards, then back to center. Do 6-10 per side of these.
4.) Single leg raise:
For this exercise you are going to bend one leg and straighten the other. Press the back lightly into the ground by tilting the pelvis and engaging those transverse abdominals. Keeping that strong stable position, lower one leg down. DO NOT LET THE LOWER BACK COME UP! We are working on keeping the transverse abdominals engaged while we raise and lower the leg. Do 10 per side.
Be patient with learning to strengthen and use your deep core muscles. Core strength and control is an ongoing journey and can take years to master. Just like in our dancing, the goal isn’’t to have everything “perfect” but rather improve a little bit each day.
If you want to learn more about how to improve your individual dancing, click the link HERE to schedule your FREE Feis Fit Video Analysis where we break down exactly what you need to work on in your dancing.
Dance Anatomy and Kinesiology; Karen Clippinger
Pilates Tonic; Sydney Craig, Restorative Movement Specialist
“Your Hips Flexors Aren’t Tight, They’re Overworked” Dean Somerset and Dr. Sarah Davall
A New Approach To Core Stability; Lisa Howell
Pelvic Exercises; Physiotherapist Michelle Kenway