Everyone covets the dancer’s 6 pack. Ballet abs! This beautifully etched muscle is the rectus abdominus (RA) and gets a lot of attention from people wanting to strengthen their abdominals.
Now, while that is all well and good, the rectus abdominus is actually an extrinsic (outer) core muscle, so it does not participate in spinal stability like the deeper core muscles do.
Therefore, doing thousands of crunches to work the rectus abdominus may give you a nicer looking tummy but at the cost of a healthy spine and sacrificing true core strength!
What is the core?
The core is actually the whole trunk from the hips to shoulders. Dancers need to move effortlessly in all directions. To achieve optimal movement without unnecessary muscular tension, there must be a proper timing and sequencing of the core musculature.
One of the first muscles to fire or engage, in addition to the diaphragm (more on this later), should be the transverse abdominus (TVA), not the rectus abdominus!
The TVA is the deepest core muscle and the only one to wrap around the whole abdomen, acting like a girdle to connect ribs, pelvis, and lower spine. Without proper contraction of the TVA the nervous system fails to recruit the rest of the core musculature and muscles of the extremities properly, causing things to go awry in not just dancers, but in everyone.
So if you would like to move with grace and control and at the same time get a flatter tummy and protect your lower back, below are some fundamental steps to learn. (Note: For more help, I highly recommend seeking the help of a Dynamic Neuromuscular Stabilization (DNS) or Neurokinetic Therapy (NKT) Practitioner.)!
Step 1: breath control
The transverse abdominus interdigitates with the diaphragm, the dome shaped muscle that separates the thoracic cavity where the heart and lungs lay, from the abdomen. Because the diaphragm and TVA are so interconnected it is imperative to train proper breathing.
In ideal contraction of the diaphragm, the entire muscle pushes down into the abdominal cavity, which can be observed by an expansion of the lower ribcage and the abdominal wall in all directions.
Without proper diaphragm contraction the intraabdominal pressure created in breathing will not reach all the way down to the lower lumbar spine to create the stabilization needed for movement!
1. With the above in mind, begin by laying on your back in a neutral pelvic position (hip bones on the same plane). Inhale through your nose sending the breath into your belly and the sides and back of your rib cage to create intra-abdominal pressure. Aim for a full 360 degree fill, like blowing up a balloon. Keep your chest relaxed.
2. Slowly exhale through a relaxed mouth and try to increase the length of the exhale, as this is when oxygen is delivered to the cells. Make sure to maintain the intra-abdominal pressure you created on the inhale!
Step 2: rib cage alignment
Now that you are breathing better let’s add some movement in the upper body. Continue to use the breath to maintain proper spinal alignment!
1. Still lying on your back, hold a stability ball between your hands and extend the arms straight up to the ceiling. As you exhale, stretch the arms overhead as far as possible without arching in the thoracic spine (mid-back). You can also try placing a towel under the upper back and make sure a friend is unable to pull it out from under you and you move your arms.
2. Return to the starting position on the inhale and repeat!
Step 3: Putting it together
1. The previous exercises still apply. Now add movement of the lower extremities. Place heels on a stability ball and keep the legs relaxed. Gently press the ball away and back towards you as you focus on your breath and maintaining intra-abdominal pressure to stabilize the trunk!
Step 4: integrating proper core activation
These are two exercises that require rotary stability: multi-plane trunk stability during a synchronized upper and lower extremity motion. This will get your core ready for more complex movements!
1. Place the stability ball between both legs and two hands. Press both knees and hands in on the ball. Check to make sure you are in a neutral pelvis still.
2. Maintain proper use of the breath as you move one arm and the opposite leg away from the ball. Continue to press the knee and hand that did not move into the ball. Return center and repeat with the other arm and leg!
Bird- dog is the same as dead bug, except now you are beginning in a quadruped (on all fours) so this will challenge you more to maintain a stable lower spine.
1. Raise the opposite arm and leg off the floor for 2 seconds. While in this position check to make sure you maintain your breath and intra-abdominal pressure. Switch sides.
Follow these and keep great form and you will be well on your way to ballet abs!