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How to engage your “Core” (Part 1)

I’m sure that most us have heard about “core stability” training. As dancers, we are required to have a strong core. A strong core will help improve your balance, stability, strength, posture, and alignment. But what exactly is the core and how do we train it?

The core muscles:
Contrary to what most people think, the core muscles are not simply the “abs” There are 3 main muscle groups involved which I will discuss in detail: the transversus abdominus, the pelvic floor muscles, and the multifidus.

Transversus Abdominus (TA):
TA is your innermost abdominal group. The muscle wraps horizontally around your abdominal region and is often called the body’s natural “girdle”. This is the muscle that you use to suck in your tummy. Place your fingers about an inch or two inwards from your hip bones and then cough; you will feel your TA contract

Pelvic Floor:
The pelvic floor is a group of muscles that runs from your pubic bone back to your tailbone. These are your “pee muscles” In order to contract them, the easiest thing to do is pretend to stop peeing. This is quite similar to a Kegel exercise. But make sure you’re not clenching your butt!

The multifidi are very tiny muscles that run up your spine. Put your fingers directly next to your spine (almost on top of) at the hollow of your back. Now think of puffing out those muscles underneath your fingers. It is a very gentle motion. They are very difficult to find at first, so do not worry if you can feel the contraction, focus more on the TA and pelvic floor.

These three muscle groups, in addition to the diaphragm (a muscle used for breathing) form a kind of cylinder around your lower back and pelvis area to help keep it stable. People who are in car accidents often lose the functioning of their core and must be taught how to use it again to reduce their lower back pain.

Here is the simplest exercise you can do to find and strengthen your core:

Lying on your back with your knees bent and feet on the floor, first place your fingers on your tummy, an inch inwards from the hipbones. Focus on your breathing and take nice deep breaths, letting your ribcage expand and fall. Now start off by contracting your pelvic floor (pretend to stop your pee). You will already feel your TA (under your fingers) tighten a bit. Tighten the TA even more by gently pulling your belly button down towards the floor, and slighty scooping your lower stomach in the direction of your ribcage. If you can, think of tightening the multifidus as well but do not worry too much about it.

Can you breathe? If not then you are using the wrong muscles to do this exercise. Try to keep your upper abs (“6-pack muscles”) relaxed as much as possible, you don’t want to let them take over the exercise. Hold the contraction for 10 seconds and then release. Repeat 10 times. Do this several times (3-5) during the day. Eventually you will be able to engage your core muscles all day! Try to do it sitting, standing, lying down, and most importantly in your ballet class! If you are doing it properly, your pelvis will automatically be in the proper alignment and you will have a much easier time holding your balances.

Note: You will not be able to contract you core muscles properly if your pelvis isn’t in a neutral position. To find neutral, make a triangle with your hands, with the thumbs touching and the rest of the fingers making up the two sides of the triangle, index fingers touching. Now place the apex of the triangle (where the index fingers touch) where your pubic bone is and your thumbs near your belly button. Whether you are standing, sitting, or lying on your back, if your pelvis is neutral, your fingers and thumb should be in the same plane. If you are tilting your pelvis forward (sticking your bum out), your thumbs will be in front of your fingers. If you are tilting your pelvis backwards (tucking your bum under too much) your thumbs will be behind your fingers. If you are in neutral, your thumbs and fingers will be aligned.

Here are some tips to make sure you are doing it properly:
- Make sure you can breathe normally! Remember, we want to be able to tighten the core muscles while we are dancing, and we need to breathe while dancing!
- Don’t feel like you are clenching. The contraction is very subtle, so don’t work too hard! First, contract as hard as you can. The actual amount of tightening you need is probably about of that.
- Your back should not move. If you are lying down and your pelvis is neutral, there is normally a natural curve in lower back. That curve should not change when you start doing the exercise.
- Don’t clench your buttocks! They should be relaxed.
- You should not get sore from this. The muscles will tire out so that you will not be able to hold the contraction any longer, but they should not get sore!
- Keep your movements slow, remember this is all about CONTROL