Going beyond the abs for true inner strength
By Suzanne Martin, PT, DPT
“Core? What is that?” I received this query from a French editor when she was translating my Better Back book into French. Today we have so much biomechanical research to answer that question.
It’s true that most dance injuries occur in the ankle and foot; however, overuse injuries are the hallmark of dance training, which is repetitive by nature. The biomechanical chain from the core downward is of crucial importance in helping dancers continue to dance. The top of this chain is, of course, the core.
Most people think the core consists of the abdominal muscles. But that’s only part of the story. The core is not only cylindrical (the abs) but also has a top and bottom. Think of this inner unit as Computer Central.
Training dancers in the concept and mechanics of the inner unit as Computer Central is the next wave in comprehensive career preparation. Core control separates the beginners from the advanced in terms of coordination and technical finesse; without it, limbs literally flail in partnering.
Parts of the inner unit
The inner unit has four elements. Located in the front are the deep abdominals (the transverse abs), which run from side to side, creating an abdominal “corset.”
Underneath a flat soft-tissue layer are the multifidi, each of which connects several vertebrae. These thin muscles, of varying lengths, stabilize the spine. These muscles work underneath the long, strappy muscles (the erectors) that run vertically down the back. The erectors stabilize the back in large orientation motions of the spine, such as the arch of arabesque.
At the top of the inner unit is the respiratory diaphragm, a circular muscle that moves up and down like a piston.
At the bottom is the pelvic floor, also called the pelvic diaphragm. It moves in a small, parachute-like motion, rounding up into the body to support the internal organs above.
Why inner-unit control matters
These four aspects of the inner unit must coordinate to protect and stabilize the low back and act as an anchor, or ballast, for the motions of the upper body. For my clients with scoliosis and especially for flexible women, teaching them to internally “hold” the center of gravity by coordinating the inner unit essentially gives them an insurance policy against severe low back injuries.
Boys and men have other reasons to pay attention to the precision of inner-unit use. They tend to have greater strength in general, laying on more muscle mass after the adolescent growth spurt. But this absolute strength can mask any deficits in the postural muscles. Also, boys who start dance late or progress into partnering before they’ve gained enough torso strength risk back problems.
Another key reason for control is that the inner unit must be stabilized in order for the psoas to properly work for leg elevation, e.g., développés. You just can’t get around it—the inner unit provides low-back protection, an anchor for upper-body and arm use, and a stable base from which the legs lift. Plus, it guides the knees and feet into optimal contact with the ground. The core does everything except cook your dinner.
Just like Joseph Pilates said in Return to Life, anything worth doing takes time to develop, so be patient in your pursuit of the consciously working core.
I have faith in you.
Visualize and Exercise
Finding the components of the inner unit in dance motion is the subject of much interest in dance medicine and physical therapy circles. Here are some tips to help you find them most effectively.
Visualize: Your center of gravity
Place one hand on your navel, then go 3 inches down and imagine going 3 inches inward. Place your other hand on your low back opposite the front hand. Your center of gravity is in this area. Feel your hands sandwiching this area. Bring your head weight over this area. Notice how the back relaxes when the center of gravity and head are aligned.
Exercise 1: Finding the inner unit
Kneel on all fours in a tabletop position. Make a flat back, extending your head and tailbone in opposite directions. Keeping your back flat, lift your abdominals up toward the spine. To access the deepest abdominal muscle layer, visualize your abdominals as ‘smiling’ from hipbone to hipbone. Try pulling the muscles in and pushing them out without your breath initiating the action. Then pull them in and hold them while thinking of the diaphragm moving up toward your head and then down toward the tailbone four times.
Sit tall on the edge of a chair with a firm surface. Place your hands on your low back at the waist. Shift your ribs forward and feel the big, strappy erectors pop out. Then feel for the trough between the erectors and the spiky dinosaur bumps of the spine.
Now sit tall with your head and ribs in a vertical line over your pelvis (so you’re no longer shifted forward). Without changing the orientation of the back (no flexing or arching), feel like you’re pushing back against the muscles in the trough to tighten them. These are the multifidi.
Think of the pelvic floor as diamond shaped, with the four points being the pubic bone in front, the tailbone in back, and the two sitz bones (ischial tuberosities) at the bottom. The diamond can be divided into two triangles, front and back.
Practice pulling up the muscles of the pelvic floor. Don’t grip them; instead imagine that an elevator is lifting them into your pelvis. Go easy.
Now squat in a wide second position, bracing your hands against your thighs. Practice lifting the muscles of the pelvic floor even though you are widening the bones of the pelvis into the squat. Stay there and breathe four times, working on keeping the pelvic floor muscles engaged in this wide position.
Since the diaphragm is circular, let’s find it in several places. Place your hands on the front of the ribs. Now sniff briskly. The movement you feel in front is the action of the diaphragm. Now place your hands on the sides of the ribs. Inhale and see the sides of the rib cage expand; as you exhale, gently squeeze the rib cage.
Next, get a Thera-Band® and place it horizontally around your back below armpit level, making it tight enough to feel the tension (but not too tight). Breathe in and feel the rib cage expand and press against the band to the back. To fully fill the lungs when you inhale, think of filling two cones, one on either side of the body, from the base of the cone up to the tip, which reaches above the level of the collarbone.
Exercise 2: Straw exercise
(Imagine being sucked up through a straw. This is also a good one to do in a car while waiting in traffic.)
Sit on a surface that’s high enough to let your feet dangle above the floor. (In a car, simply keep your feet on the floor.) Slump down like a deflated accordion. Inhale, and as you exhale, gently pull your sitz bones together. Then press down on the sitz bones and feel an imaginary hand lift the skin of the low back so that you roll slightly forward. Elevate through the pelvic floor. Keep lifting the spine through the waist and lift the rib cage off the waist. Continue stretching up through the middle and upper back, thinking of going up through the rib cage. Then stretch the neck up like a giraffe’s neck.
Stay tall and inhale. Exhale and get taller; inhale and stay tall. Repeat. Exhale and get taller, then relax.
Visualize: Pelvic placement using the inner unit
Stand with your feet a few inches apart, toes facing forward in parallel. First feel the external muscles. Using the abdominals, tuck your pelvis, shortening the distance between the breastbone and the pubic bone. Then try tucking the pelvis by tightening the glutes (pulling the back of the pelvis down toward the thighs). Then arch the back by tightening the erectors, the big, strappy muscles of the back.
Now find a neutral pelvis with the hipbones lifted and the tailbone pointing down toward the floor. Experiment by moving the pelvis into a tuck and then into an arch only by changing the tightening of the pelvic floor. First tighten the front and notice the slight tuck. Then tighten the back and feel the slight arch. Train yourself to find a neutral pelvis and support the low back through the use of the deep muscles of the pelvic floor.
Exercise 3: Coordinating the inner unit
Take a tabletop position on your hands and knees with the knees 3 to 4 inches apart in parallel. Find a flat back. Reach behind you with the sitz bones so that the pelvis is neutral, without a tuck.
Feel the abdominals lift against the spine and an imaginary hand holding the low back flat, creating a sandwiching effect. Feel the width between the sitz bones as you lift the pelvic floor up toward the head without disturbing the orientation of the pelvis or back. Tuck the toes under. Inhale and exhale, then lift the knees about 2 inches off the floor. Stay there and breathe for four breath cycles, then lower the knees. Repeat.