The abdominal muscles are critical for a dancer to maintain good posture and strength throughout class and performance. Many people focus on doing loads and loads of sit-ups in order to strengthen their abdominals. Having strength through the outer ‘6 pack’ muscles (Rectus Abdominis) is important in a dance however, the deeper layers of your abdomen are far more important in controlling the stability of the spine and preventing injury.
You actually have 4 layers of abdominals and the ‘6 pack’ configuration down the front of the body is just the outer layer. Alongside these you have two layers of Obliques which help you flex and rotate your trunk and under this you have a very important layer called your Transversus Abdominis. The fibers of this layer run almost horizontal and instead of moving the spine in any direction they contract and stabilize your abdominal organs and your lower back. This is very important to get control of and will help in your turns, arabesque and your balance in general. Dancers are required to take their spines through extraordinary ranges of motion. Establishing effective control of each vertebra is essential to avoiding injury.
Many people try too hard when trying to activate these muscles when in fact the simplest activation is usually enough. To help to find these muscles, feel like you are trying to resist urinating. This may sound funny but it helps engage the deep pelvic floor muscles and the deep abdominals. While maintaining this, see if you can feel like you are pulling the skin of the lowest part of the tummy away from your leotard or belt. This should be a small contraction and should be about 10% of your maximal contraction. See if you can maintain some tension in this area as you continue to breathe gently.
Remember, the spine should not move while you are doing these exercises. The spine must be maintained in neutral when you are learning these exercises; however once you have mastered effective control, movement should be introduced. Many girls focus on flattening their spine when they switch on their tummy muscles. This is actually not good for the back, and can make it more unstable. There are tiny muscles that help stabilize each of the spinal joints that should activate with the deep pelvic floor and deep abdominal muscles. You must keep a tiny curve in your low back to maintain activation of these muscles while you gently contract the tummy muscles.
The combined system of stabilizing muscles is often called “the corset” as it is a natural version of the stiff 18th century boned corsets that women used to wear. It is the most effective way to narrow your waist, and provide protection for the intervertebral discs in your spine. Try turning on these muscles in sitting, standing, lying on your back or side, and while walking. The more you can use them throughout the day the stronger they will be!This does take practice however it is important to maintain the strength and control of your entire body and your abdominals in general. You will have a much healthier spine for the rest of your life if you find these muscles when you are young!.