Whether you dance the style of Russian ballet, the Balanchine style, adult ballet, or modern/contemporary ballet, it is important that you learn to engage the deep abdominal muscle. Doing so will bring your dancing to a whole other level. Dancers in ballet schools/studios and ballet companies can equally benefit from learning the concept of using the lower abs. This muscle is called the transversus abdominis. Today I will outline this concept for you and show you some exercises that will help you locate and strengthen it. Enjoy!
How does it help your dancing?
How many times have you heard a teacher say, “Hold your abs”? Countless times, probably. Yet, one reason repeating the statement still proves unsuccessful for students is that by thinking this we only engage our outer upper abdominal muscles – the rectus abdominis muscle. Effectively, holding your abs is only beneficial to your dancing if you engage the innermost part of the lower abdominals – the transversus abdominis.
Unlike other, more superficial muscles, this muscle doesn’t only create a new shape of the abdominal area, but it stabilizes the spine. This allows for an increase in range of motion in the surrounding joints. So, if you struggle with movements such as extensions or you have difficulty finding strength in externally rotated (turned out) positions, the transversus abdominis will provide the support you need for those movements.
Not only does this muscle work to stabilize, it also helps manipulate the small spinal joints that determine the placement of a dancer’s pelvis. This in turn will impact the way they dance. There are two types of pelvic placement problems: tipping and tucking. Tipping is when the hip bones extend backwards and there is a crease in the front of the hip, and tucking is just the opposite: the tops of the hip bones are pushed backwards and in. By engaging the transversus abdominis properly, the pelvis is pulled into a “neutral” position and is vertically aligned with the spine.
A quick anatomy lesson
Before we go further into the detail of this muscle, it’s important to be aware of the surrounding muscles. The first of these is the rectus abdominis. It is commonly known as the “six pack” muscle, because when it is strengthened enough it creates the appearance of the six pack. While it may be appealing to some, it really has no use to ballet dancers. It is a superficial muscle, and therefore has no use in stabilizing the spine. To some, it is called a “show muscle.” While it is important to exercise it for toning purposes, it has no real use in the ballet technique that I describe here. Exercises that target this muscle are crunches and similar sit-up type exercises that do not call for the dancer’s muscles to stabilize themself in the position…they are solely a repetition of the same movement.
The second part of the abdominals are the obliques. You have two oblique muscles: the internal oblique and the external oblique. They are located on the sides of your abdominal area and intertwine through one another. If they are both equally strengthened, they are very valuable in creating support for your body in positions such as extensions to the side, turns and balancing in various positions. For example, one of my teachers tells me to use my oblique on my supporting side to help stay lengthened when my leg is extended on the working side. The obliques are in fact very helpful in lots of ballet movements.
This brings us to that deep internal muscle I was talking about earlier: the transversus abdominis. It is the innermost abdominal muscle, and it actually runs all the way around your torso area, on the back of you, too. Because it surrounds the spine so tightly and thoroughly, it is very helpful in stabilizing it and flattening the stomach.
To help you visualize all of this, take a look at the abdominal diagram below:
Finding and Strengthening the Lower Abs
In the video you will learn how to find the muscle and see some exercises to do to help improve its strength. One important thing you should know about the muscle is that it provides no burning sensation when it is exercised, which makes it harder to find. It also doesn’t change the shape of the abdominal area when it is engaged (that is mostly the job of the rectus abdominis). On the other hand, you will notice that it stabilizes the spine and flattens the stomach.
Take a look at the exercise video below to help you find the transverse abdominis muscle and learn how to exercise it:
Sources: bamboocorefitness.com, Dance Anatomy by Jacqui Greene Haas
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