Core Control: “Not just abdominals”
Author: Clara Fischer Gam on behalf of the IADMS Education Committee
In previous Education Committee posts we’ve spent time talking about turnout, and mentioned the importance of core control and neutral alignment in maximizing rotation of the legs. Here, we spend a bit more time focusing on core control and what that might mean.
Everyone is talking about the importance of core control and the topic is becoming commonplace among dancers and teachers. We keep hearing that dancers got to have “core awareness,” “strong abdominals,” and “movement control.” Before we start “drawing our belly buttons in” we might well ask ourselves:
What does core control actually mean?
The term core usually refers to the structures (including bones, muscles and ligaments) of the shoulder girdle, trunk, pelvis and hip. As the human spine is in essence an unstable structure, further stabilization is provided by the musculature.
There is still some debate within research about the muscles that constitute the core and their precise contribution to movement control, but here we will meet muscle groups that are often considered by researchers to be involved in the dynamics of core control:
Superficial muscles of the trunk: They produce trunk motion and act as prime movers during dynamic activities and provide multi-segmental stiffness over a wide range of motion (e.g.: rectus abdominis, external and internal obliques, iliocostalis thoracis).
Deep muscles of the trunk: These local muscles are better suited for segmental stability (e.g.: transversus abdominis, multifidus, interspinalis).
Transfer Muscles of the Shoulder Girdle and Pelvic Girdle: These muscle groups connect the upper or the lower limbs to the trunk thereby transferring the forces through the system during movement (e.g.: hip flexors, scapular stabilizers).
Above: Serratus anterior, example of transfer muscle of the shoulder girdle
Above: Psoas major and iliacus, examples of transfer muscles of the pelvic girdle
Pelvic Floor Muscles: These muscles are part of the compound structure that closes the bony pelvic outlet, offering support to the pelvic organs (e.g.: urogenital sphincter, levator ani)
As superficial muscles can be easily accessed, we tend to rely on them maybe more frequently than we should (e.g.: feeling only the “six pack” rectus abdominis activation without regard for the deep abdominals when “contracting” in Graham Technique class). Although deep muscles are not as easy to feel and recruit as superficial muscles, they’ve got an important function. Teachers can encourage students’ awareness for these deeper muscles (e.g.: they can be reminded of the action of transversus abdominis as well as of superficial muscles involved while reaching a penchée).
These diverse muscle groups act together to maintain control of positioning and movement of the trunk over the upper and lower extremities: and that’s especially relevant when it comes to dance. Core control seems to provide spine support and to back up pelvic alignment, which could be important factors to ensure movement control of legs and arms as well as to facilitate turnout in dancers. You can find some ideas for core support training directed to turnout on this International Association for Dance Medicine & Science (IADMS) Resource Paper HERE. Also check out our previous blog posts for bite-size information.
Lack of core control seems to increase strain on the surrounding joints, bones and ligaments and has been related to injury risk on lower extremities and the lower back. As we know that dancers quite often acquire injuries on these parts of the body, bringing core control activities into studio practice could also play a key role on injury prevention and in turn enhance movement efficiency.
When cueing dance students to navigate through the core concept, it’s important to keep in mind that as postural adjustments and external loads entail constant changes to the body, core stability is considered a dynamic concept. That means that the contributions of each muscle on maintaining trunk stability may vary moment to moment throughout movement. For this reason, it’s hard to say that there is such a thing as a single core muscle we should always focus on while dancing. The core control muscles appear to work synchronously with one another.
Instead, it could be really useful (and fun) to explore the strategies used to achieve a desired movement you are working on and observe the muscle activation patterns it causes, whilst keeping in mind the anatomical references as well as research findings and discussions about core control. Why not help young dancers themselves to feel their core throughout movement and to identify their personal patterns during class? Kitty Daniels talks about strategies to help students to understand the role of core control in practice as well as to find a system of their own to work on individual challenges and artistic goals. Find out more about this teaching approach at this IADMS Bulletin for Teachers article HERE, click on Bulletin Volume 1, Number 1, pages 8-10.
As we’ve mentioned before providing images and online applications which allow dancers to locate these muscles really seems to aid understanding and importantly, the efficient execution of movement. Check out these short animated videos: they are great resources in locating those deep control muscles, which are often so difficult for dancers to feel.
Ambegaonkar JP, Rickman AM, Cortes N. Core stability: implications for dance injuries. Medical Problems of Performing Artists. 2012;17(3):143-148.
Cholewieki J & McGill SM. Mechanical stability of the in vivo lumbar spine: implications for injury and chronic low back pain. Clinical Biomechanics. 1996; ll(l):l-15.
Hodges PW & Richardson CA. Contraction of the abdominal muscles associated with movement of the lower limb. Physical Therapy.1997; 77(2):132-142.
Kline JB, Krauss JR, Maher SE, Quo X. Core strength training using a combination of home exercises and a dynamic sling system for the management of low back pain in pre-professional ballet dancers. A case series. Journal of Dance Medicine & Science. 2013; 17(1):24-33.
Panjabi M. The stabilizing system of the spine. Part II. Neutral zone and instability hypothesis. Journal of Spinal Disorders. 1992; 5(4):390-397.
Clara Fischer Gam, MS.
Dance Educator, Pilates Instructor
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil