I’m excited to share an amazing guest article from Monika Volkmar, owner of The Dance Training Project! In this article, Monika explains the importance of glute strength to a dancer, how to identify alignment and glute activation problems, and how to correct them. This is a must-read for dancers of ALL styles.
WHERE ARE YOUR GLUTES, REALLY?
You know where they are.
Or do you… They’re down there somewhere, right?
If you’re a dancer, maybe not.
Trick question. Obviously you know where your butt is. By “where are your glutes?” what I really mean is, what muscle group (or groups) is taking over the work that the glutes should be doing? To put it yet another way, I ask you this: Are your hip muscles all performing their proper function, with an adequate level of strength, in their optimal position?
Are your glutes glute-ing? Psoas psoas-ing? Hammies hamming?
There is a serious pandemic in the dance world: “glute-not-in-glute syndrome,” the most common of the sub-syndromes being glute-in-back, glute-in-calf, and glute-in-quad varieties (not really actual “syndromes,” by the way, just a way of looking at muscle compensations).
This is an article about hip strength (glutes in particular) and why it is important for dancers to have some. A lot, actually.
WHAT DOES HIP STRENGTH MEAN FOR A DANCER?
Are the muscles of your hips all strong enough to do their own jobs?
Hip strength refers to the ability of the muscles attaching to your pelvis, hips, and thighs to stabilize your alignment statically and in motion, to create movement, and to produce and absorb force. Dancing, in other words, requires a lot of hip strength.
How can you tell if you are lacking in this department? I can almost guarantee you are, regardless of your main dance style. Here are some red flags:
- You find it easier to lift your leg in one plane than others. For example, you can lift your leg up to the side easily, but struggle with the front or arabesque lines.
- Jumping is hard for you, or your landings feel rickety, maybe causing shin splints, or pain in your knees and ankles.
- Your balance is what you’d call “not good.”
- Your hamstrings, hips, and lower back always feel “tight.”
- You have a history of injury to the lower back, knees, ankles, and feet.
The above points are indicative of a potential strength imbalance in the muscles controlling the hips, and probably a poorly positioned lumbo-pelvic area. Weak glutes can allow extra stress to be felt in the weaker joints below in the kinetic chain (knees, ankles, etc.) which weren’t designed do the kind of work the glutes can do.
Don’t put your knees and ankles in a position to be used as glutes. The hip thrust is a really good exercise for developing glute strength (and a nice booty), but there is no such thing as a “knee thrust.” For a good reason.
Miguel Aragoncillo, a break dancer and strength coach who has learned from some of the best coaches in the industry, wrote this nice article explaining how, for happier knees, you must look to the hips for help. The hip position controls the knees. Give it a read when you have a chance.
And that brings up a very important word: Position.
WHAT COMES FIRST, POSITION OR POWER?
What do you work on first–alignment or strength?
You can’t have one without the other, unless of course you’re satisfied with moving like crap and being in pain all the time (I know you’re not).
An important concept to understand is that your position will dictate which muscles will work to create movement. Take the supine hip bridge (in the picture below) for example. This exercise is meant to strengthen glute max, but many people will end up feeling it in their quads, or lower backs instead. This is because their position isn’t quite right–they can’t get their hips into extension, the required position.
This is a good example of the glutes doing the glute-ing. Notice the hips are extended, not flexed. She’s probably feeling some glute burning. Is good.
In the above picture, however, we see the lovely ballerina doing typical, albeit well-intentioned, ballerina things: using her calves and lower back and quads to do the glute-ing. You can see she is still flexed at the hip–which is silly if you remember that, to do a hip bridge, you need to get your hips to extend. So silly.
So maybe along with “are your hips strong?” we should be asking, “Can you get into full hip extension?” I can’t. And a lot of dancers can’t either. Not without help.
Strength or position. Which is more important? Obviously both matter. And like most things done right, you can address both position and power simultaneously. In fact, I think this is the only way to do it.
WHY IS HIP STRENGTH IMPORTANT FOR DANCERS?
You get told a thousand times a day to fix your alignment. But strength? Why should you do supplemental exercises to strengthen the glutes? Do you want to dance better and not get hurt? That’s why. But allow me to elaborate:
- Control of lumbo-pelvic alignment. Aligning the joints properly allows the muscles to work in a more advantageous position. A mechanical advantage. This is a nice example of position allowing for better power. Better positioned bones (your alignment) allow for muscles to contract harder–more motor units at once, producing more force. Also, because dancers need to have extreme mobility at the hips, the need for more strength and stability is more important than for the average person.
- Technical execution and performance of choreography. It goes without saying, being stronger will help you with all aspects of your technique: jumps, balance, lifts, and even your stamina. More efficient dancing means less wasted energy. Your brain won’t have to work as hard either if your body is able to do its job better, meaning you’re less likely to burn out mentally.
- Injury prevention. A weak muscle cannot stabilize. If the glutes are weak, for example, other muscles will take over the job (glute-not-in-glute syndromes). Muscle imbalances develop. You start to hurt because muscles are being overused, and others are doing nothing. A stronger body protects your mind too, helping to prevent mental burnout.
Anecdotally, the dancers I see that have the lowest levels of strength are also the ones that complain of being sore everywhere, all the time. The dancers that are stronger (some of my dance clients have pretty badass deadlift numbers) and have a more aligned, relaxed posture very rarely complain of soreness, and hardly get injured seriously enough to keep them from performing.
By improving hip strength and pelvic alignment (especially muscles of the posterior chain like the glutes and hammies), I’ve had dancers tell me they experience awesome things like:
- Reduction in snapping hip symptoms, and hip pain in general.
- Higher developpes (especially to the front).
- Better balance and turns.
- Improvements in hip rotation range of motion.
- Less daily soreness.
- Hips feeling less “tight.”
When your glutes are glute-ing, this is the magic stuff that happens. But what if your glutes have migrated somewhere else? And how can you tell if that’s happened to you?
WHAT I LOOK AT WHEN ASSESSING A DANCER’S HIP FUNCTION:
1) Imbalances in hip rotation. Look at passive and active hip rotation abilities (femoral acetabular, i.e., ball in socket rotation). When hips have dysfunction and pain, it’s likely there will be some funky stuff going on with their hip rotation values:
- How much turn in/turn out from the hip?
- Is the total range of motion the same on both sides?
- Is there a hip internal rotation deficit?
- Does one side have opposite rotational tendencies compared to the other?
- Is active and passive range of motion the same?
In a perfect, symmetrical person (which doesn’t exist, by the way), an optimal external rotation ROM should be 60 degrees, and internal rotation should be 40 degrees, with both sides having the same total range of motion. And while maintaining neutral spine.
Which leads me to the next point…
2) Ability to maintain neutral spine and neutral pelvis. Can you get out of spinal extension? I find that a lot of dancers are unable to get out this trademark dancer posture.
Being a dancer requires that you have a lot of hyper-flexibility into spinal extension, and so you tend to lose the ability to “get round”–the ability to flex the lumbar spine and posteriorally tilt the pelvis (tuck under). Not that you should stand and move with your pelvis tucked under, but if you can’t move in that direction, you’re going to have problems just getting to neutral, and getting the appropriate musculature to work. Position is power.
It also limits the variety of movements you can perform. For example, a Graham contraction is impossible to do correctly if you cannot round your lower back.
Notice the two dancers above both appear to be leaning forward on their toes, have an arched (extended) lower back, a flared-up and forward rib cage relative to their pelvis, which is anteriorally tilted. All pointing to a case of “glute-in-back” syndrome (and possibly some other dysfunction too).
If you are stuck in this kind of posture and you try to jump right into a strength development program, like resistance training, pilates, yoga or gyrotonics, then you’ll just be exacerbating existing muscle imbalances. You might first have to work on lumbar spine inhibition before you can get those glutes to activate. It’s important to understand which muscles should work, and which should not. Which leads me to…
3) Mind muscle connection. How well can you fire muscles on command in a proper sequence?
A big one I like to check is whether dancers can fire their glutes and hamstrings before their lower back muscles to lift their leg up behind them, like in a prone hip extension:
Getting this neuromuscular firing sequence down is an important part of strength training.
All this leads back to that big question…
WHERE ARE YOUR GLUTES RIGHT NOW?
The glute max is the king of the pelvic floor. One of the most important muscles to have strong for both position and power. They extend the hip, externally rotate the leg, give you power to jump, keep your pelvis aligned.
Are you experiencing one of the common glute-not-in-glute syndromes? Here are some examples:
Glute-in-calf: I assessed a dancer who couldn’t perform a glute exercise unless she pointed her feet.
Glute-in-back: One girl I assessed couldn’t get into to full hip extension while side-lying, or on her stomach, and used her lower back muscles to lift her leg behind her.
Glute-in-quad: When getting a dancer to do a glute exercise, she only felt her quads burning.
So how can you stoke your glute fire? That’s a very individual question. But when a dancer’s glutes have migrated to a new location, these are some good strategies:
- Breathing exercises
- Abdominal strengthening
- Repositioning and alignment exercises
- Inhibition of the “new glute”: Foam rolling, massage ball, stretching, relaxation techniques, etc.
- Postural education
- Soft tissue therapy
Then try your glute exercises again, like the prone hip extension I mentioned above. Squeeze the crap out of your glutes. Try to keep your lower back from arching. Relax your feet. Relax your quads. Do a set of 15-20. Hopefully you can get your glutes back on.
I hope you will take the time to figure out where your glutes really are, and try to put them back into their proper place. Chances are high that they’ve migrated north or south. You’ll be doing yourself a huge favor- Keeping your hips happy, and helping you kill it on the dance floor, pain free.
Monika Volkmar (BFA, CSCS) is the owner of The Dance Training Project, which strives to educate dancers on the importance of strength training for injury prevention and improved technical performance. A former classically trained dancer, Monika was frustrated that she had to end her career early due to injury, and now is passionate about helping others avoid this same fate through strength development. Monika currently trains clients privately, teaches strength classes for dancers in Toronto, and writes regularly for her blog at www.danceproject.ca. Be sure to like her Facebook page and check out her online training program to learn some sweet exercises for your butt.