Do Dancers Need to Strengthen Their Lower Abs?

Today one of my dancers asked me something that made me cringe a little bit, but I ended up going on, what I thought, was a really great tangent that I’ll try my best now to reiterate.

For today’s purposes, we I’ll just call this dancer, “dancer”. I’m too tired to think thoughts more creative than already required. So there.

Dancer- “Can you give me some exercises I can do at home for my lower abs?”

I’m all for doing core exercises. I think they are great.

For those of you who still believe that you must “feel the burn in the lower abs”, just stop now. This isn’t anything new or groundbreaking, I hope.

Let’s not kid ourselves. We’re naive and ignorant beings. We’ve all sought the awesome burny feeling of the “lower abs” working. But deep down, I think we all knew that this burny feeling alone wasn’t actually helping with anything, whether we chose to acknowledge it’s efficacy or not. We have high expectations of our lower abs.

As Dr. Stu McGill states in his awesome book, Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance,

“Many coaches and athletes believe that they must perform exercises to train the lower rectus and others for the upper rectus. Myoelectric evidence suggests that there is no functional distinction between “upper” and “lower” rectus abdominis in most people.”

Many get caught up in the “hunting the burn” (not saying that this dancer was, but I mean people in general). I used to hunt the burn.

I like to refer back to the study done by McGill with pig spines. The question was, “does the spine only have a limited number of times that it can flex before disks herniate?”And so they took a pig spine, flexed it a bunch of times, and guess what- Disks herniated… But then again, much like drugs don’t work the same way on mice as they do on humans- A pig spine is not the same as a human spine.

So yes, while the rectus abdominis has upper and lower sections, the abdominals are all connected. If you activate one segment, they all fire. Just try this- Put one hand on your stomach, and one on your back. Now flex your abs and exhale forcefully. You felt everything contract at once, right? That’s how your abs are supposed to work. Together. Happy (dysfunctional?) family.

So anyway, back to the question of “what exercises should I do at home for my lower abs”.

Me (warily) “Why? What have your teachers been saying about your lower abs?”

Dancer- “That I need to engage them and use them more in class”

Now I should probably mention that this girl is quite strong and has very good acquisition of exercise technique. She has a solid side plank, and her deadlifts are getting up there on the badass meter. This leads me to believe that it’s not necessarily that she needs to do more exercises specifically to strengthen her lower abs, it’s that she needs to actually USE THEM in class.

And this requires her to breathe. ACTUALLY breathe. Not that fake breathing thing that dancers like to do when asked to use their breath. You know, where they giggle, take one fake breath, and then go back to holding it.

Your abdominals are actually connected fascially to your diaphragm. Deep, foreceful breathing will help you activate the transverse abdominis (TVA), and as we know, if one of the abdominals contract, they ALLLLL contract. By actually using your abdominals, you are also ensuring that it’s not your hip flexors that are stabilizing your spine, and so that allows them to do their real job- Which is to lift your leg above your head and hold it there..

One thing that heavy lifting taught me was the importance of breathing. When performing a strength move, especially when it’s at or around 80-100% of your 1RM, if you’re NOT breathing, you won’t make the lift. You need the pressure of air in your belly and to have all your core musculature braced. It forces you to breathe. This is a good lesson for dancers- That breathing is necessary for technical success.

In dance, breathing IS necessary for technical success.

So I gave her an exercise to practice breathing and core activation at home, but most importantly I tried to leave her with an important message- You can’t change your mind and body separately, they transform together, along with your spirit. Transformation of the mind, body and soul occur simultaneously.

As Thomas Myers says, you should end the mentality that you must “change your mind about your body”, and begin to “change your body about your mind”.

You can’t just do strengthening exercises and expect them to help you in dance class. You must bring your awareness to whats happening in your body while doing the exercise, and find the parallels to dance, so you can apply what you’ve learned. And you must feel it in your soul.

At the end of the day, when I think about my dancers, and wish their little spines all the happiness they deserve, I really believe that it is not the strengthening that is helping them to dance better, but more-so the fact they they are becoming more aware of the things that are happening in their bodies through the exposure to new experiences in the weight room. Yes, they are getting stronger, and that is good. But it goes deeper than that.

An intelligent dancer (who am I kidding, ALL dancers are smarter than the average bear), will be able to draw parallels between what they’re bodies are being forced to do to develop strength in the weight room, and what they are trying to get their bodies to do in dance class.

Like my “A-HA!” moment, when I was doing a seated dumbbell press, felt my glutes engage for the first time, and the next day was able to do pirouettes properly. It was pretty groovy.

So anyway, what I want you to remember is that it is not always a matter of “lower ab strengthening”. Rather, remember how it is NECESSARY to breathe forcefully while lifting weights, and then take that lesson on breathing into dance class.

Remember what it feels like to engage your abdominals while lifting weights, and then feel that happening while you’re dancing.

Remember that your breath, strength and emotion come from the same place- your “core” (or your gut), and that dance requires harmony between all 3 of those aspects, strength, breath, emotion, to be absolutely beautiful. You know how they say, “I felt it in my gut.”? It’s a more accurate statement than you think.

I wish more dance teachers were educated on important things like this, because as a young dancer it can be confusing when your ballet teacher tells you one thing, your modern teacher tells you something else, and your strength coach says something completely different.

Leave a Reply