Getting to your Core
You hear the words "core" and "core strength" everywhere these days. But do you actually know what exactly is meant by it? You may have been told or you thought yourself that your core is not strong enough. What did you do about it? I hope not what I did when I was in ballet school: going home and doing hundreds of abdominal crunches and jackknife sit-ups every evening (it was the late 80s mind you) with no tangible results.
If you do not want to waste your time like this it is worth having a clear idea about your core and its basic functions. Even people who do attend Pilates classes (the sanctum of core-mastery) often tell me they still don't really get it.
So can we understand it better?
Your core is your upper body's internal centre. Imagine it being your inner corset. Its task is to:
The muscles mostly associated with the core are the deep abdominal muscles. Important ones for ballet students to know and to visualise are:
1) Transverse Abdominus (fig.1), which wraps like a broad belt around your waist. It's main function is the stabilisation of the trunk and spine.
2) Internal and External Obliques (fig.2), these connect diagonally the ribs with the pelvis. Their main function is to rotate/spiral the upper body.
3) Rotator Cuffs, this is a group of muscles that "sandwich" your shoulder blades. I include these as they are intrinsically connected (via the serratus anterior) with the external oblique and play a major part in upper body stabilisation.
4) Pyramidalis (fig.3) as some of you know my personal favourite, which is a tiny triangle shaped muscles that goes from the pubic bone to midway below the navel and acts like a zipper on your trousers to zip up your lower belly.
pictures from The Concise Book of Muscles by Chris Jarmey
picture from trainoutpain.com, June 2012
Why is core function so important in ballet?
It gives you the freedom to move. Without an engaged internal centre and stabilised shoulder blades; your arms, legs and even your neck have neither power nor autonomy.
A responsive (not rigid) core is vital for balancing and correct posture, especially on pointe, and it is absolutely crucial when jumping as it absorbs the shock to the spine and other joints during landing.
It took me a long time to figure out how to engage my abdominals correctly. That is to lift the lower belly in and up whilst keeping the rib cage closed. I could do either one or the other but not both at the same time. Until I got the image of the wooden box pencil case I used in school. I imagined my lower belly as the box that slides up inside the outer case and the outer case as my rib cage that slides down over the inner box. (see fig.4)
Unless you are able to properly use your core, you will hold too much tension in your neck and shoulders and grip your hip flexors (goodbye high extensions!). Internal strength results in external freedom, whereas internal weakness results in external tension.
How to exercise the core?
As mentioned earlier, it is not about the quantity of abdominal crunches that will make a difference but the proper muscle engagement. This is achieved by slow execution of small range motion exercises, which require a lot of mindfulness and concentration. The aim when training the lower abdomen, for example, is to keep the muscles long and drawn inwards during the activation phase and to avoid letting them "pop out". That is not easy but it ensures the creation of muscular as well as neural connections. In practical terms, this means that your brain can tell your muscles to do “A” and they will obey. Ideally, with time they become trained so well that they do their job instinctively and your brain can concentrate on performing.
It is important to understand that we are looking for optimal functionality, not muscle tightness. Simply sucking in as much as you can or until you can no longer hold your breath is of no use. Try to dance a solo this way, or a three hours Sleeping Beauty performance, all with an effortless smile on your face! The Prince’s kiss may not be enough to wake you up. Being able to breath without strain indicates the accurate execution of these kinds of exercises.