Last post referenced our ‘inner strength’ from a spiritual sense. While our spiritual posture is the most valuable, our physical ‘inner strength’ is critical as well as we move our bodies in love. Our core and hips were designed by God to provide stability, strength, and service to others. For us ladies, this area also is where life itself grows and enters the world! Let’s take care of what the Lord has given us!
Amy, a friend and member of Holy Barre, put this together for her ballet students as a guide to proper posture. Her years of dance, injuries, and therapy have taught her a great deal about the positioning of our bodies. Even non-dancers like me can benefit from what’s below in barre and daily living! Thanks, Amy!
By Amy Griffith
- rectus abdominis (the “6-pack”)
- pelvic floor muscles
Rectus Abdominis Muscle
The rectus abdominis is the muscle commonly known as the 6-pack muscle. This outermost muscle layer of our four abdominal walls surprisingly has a super important job besides physical attraction when displayed in good lighting…maybe with some body oil. Aaaanyways, when we have knowledge of how it works, we learn that the actual super important job of our 6-pack muscle is that its use helps to align our pelvis directly under our spine.
If you’ve taken dance classes previously or worked out in a class setting at the gym, you might have heard the phrases “pull your abs in” or “pull your abs up”. Of the two actions mentioned in those phrases (in and up), only the 6-pack muscle can perform the action of pulling directly up. This is because, out of the four abdominal layers we have, only the 6-pack muscle has fibers that run vertically. Learning to isolate this muscle’s action of pulling up is probably not a skill for a resume, but finding that kind of specific muscle control will absolutely change how your pelvis and upper body are aligned and supported in movement, turning, or active balancing. With learning to isolate the 6-pack muscle comes an inner understanding of when it’s being correctly engaged.
Using your 6-pack muscle creates pelvic alignment because the bottom of the muscle connects into a cartilage disk that is secured right in-between the two bones that form your pubic bone at the front of your pelvis. For those of you overly enthusiastic dancers-gone-anatomy-nerds like me who want to know all of the scientific names, that cartilage disk is called the pelvic symphysis. Ok, analogy time for how the action of “up” in your 6-pack muscle aligns your pelvis:
- Pelvis = a bowl of water
- Rectus Abdominis (6-pack muscle) = string
Think of your pelvis as a bowl of water that’s tipped forward as it’s sitting on a table, causing the water to spill out the front. If we (for some odd reason) glued the end of a strong string to the forward-tipping side – the cartilage disk – and pulled the string upwards, the bowl would then settle into correct alignment on the table. The image of the tipped-forward bowl is an easy way to visualize the misalignment that most people’s pelvises tend towards naturally settling into, especially when the abdominals are weak.
Newton’s 3rd Law says that “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction”. When you apply that law to a body with a misaligned pelvis, you can imagine that the upper and lower body are very negatively affected. Think about what happens to just the lower body when this misalignment counterbalance is in play: when the pelvis is tipped forward it causes the thigh bones to turn inward, which causes stress to the knees. This causes you to roll inward onto the arches of your feet to relieve that knee strain, thereby misaligning and stressing your ankles and feet. Add attempts to use external rotation during ballet classes, and you end up a ball of forced tension and pain. Brings to mind the song “Hello darkness, my old friend”… This is the reason it’s so important to know the “whys” to conditioning and using each of our four abdominal walls! Remember, if our “string” – our abdominals – is simply too weak, then our pelvic bowl is going to stay continuously tipped forward to create a constant spillage over the front. If we don’t purposefully train each abdominal layer this will be the state of our pelvis when we’re dancing, walking, standing, going up or down stairs, working out, any time we bend our knees and pick something up, etc. Once you understand how much protection that your abdominals give for your spine and lower body, you can understand how much daily wear and tear is absolutely preventable!
Pelvic Floor Muscle Group
The pelvic floor muscles also help to support pelvic alignment. I call this group of muscles the “hafta pee” muscles, because they are the ones that we have been trained to reflexively use when we really need to go, but end up having to hold it. You can contract, hold, and release them right now; they’re super easy to find and isolate.
Okay get ready for a slight tangent about holding, never gripping. A nice, active thought of hold is always what you want to go for in use of your muscles during any dance class. You never want to think about hard-stop words like “grip” or “clench” for any muscles, including the 6-pack or pelvic floor muscles when using them to keep your pelvis aligned! If muscles around a joint are gripped, that joint’s range of motion is then extremely restricted. For understanding this concept in a ball-and-socket type of joint, make a fist and press it hard into the palm of your other hand. While still pressing hard, try to twist the fist around. Bit uncomfortable, innit? That’s a good example of a why joint can end up with painful grinding, popping, wear-and-tear, etc. Sound familiar, dancers? Like anyone’s hips? If a habit of tension is trained into our muscles and at the same time if you’re attempting to force more range of motion out of those stuck joints, it will eventually lead to or, in extreme cases immediately cause, injuries that will become much more likely the older you get. I know that sounds rather dramatic, but it definitely happens! And now back to our scheduled program, the held-not-gripped “hafta pee” muscles.
So the the pelvic floor muscles we want to think about are inside your pelvis, at the bottom of that (hopefully now, non-spilling) pelvic bowl. The muscles fill in the base of the pelvis in a sort of diamond-ish shape because of the placement of the bones they’re attached to. These points of attachment are the two ischial tuberosities, the pubic bone, and the tail bone. If you sit with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor, you can locate your ischial tuberosities (which is just a fancy way to say “butt bones”) by gently rocking side to side. You hopefully already know where your tailbone and pubic bone are. These four bones can therefore be seen as a kind of diamond shape (in green below). Here’s a top-down picture that I’ve titled “Sorry, I drew this with my finger”:
It’s not important to know details about where each of the pelvic floor muscles attach in that diamond shape that’s the bottom of the pelvic bowl, just see them in that diamond-ish shape. Again, see if you can isolate the “hafta pee” muscles, imagining the pelvic floor’s diamond shape contracting into a smaller diamond shape when in use, then widening when relaxed. If you have a strong pelvic floor you can see how a gripped contraction could pull very uncomfortably on the bones they are connected to. This diamond shaped group of muscles has an outermost muscle named what I think is a super fun word to say – pubococcygeus. That particular muscle actually inserts into the same cartilage disk between your pubic bones that your 6-pack muscle inserts into. *and the crowd goes wild like whaaat that’s amazing*
So here comes another analogy, this time for how the 6-pack muscle & pelvic floor muscles work together:
- 6-pack Muscle = your arms (I know, I know, super weird but stick with me)
- Pelvis = a kettlebell
- Pelvic Floor Muscles = someone else’s hands (I SAID stick with me here)
Think of the pelvic floor muscles as helper muscles that support the work your 6-pack muscle is doing for your pelvic alignment. Imagine grabbing a kettlebell to lift and as your arms are raising it, someone’s hands are underneath the kettlebell. Their hands are not necessarily there to do the lifting for your arms, but they’re there with a small amount of pressure to create a strong base of support. See, not as weird as you thought, right? Told you.
So here’s a short synopsis of everything: The common point between your 6-pack muscles and your pelvic floor is a small disk of cartilage that is sandwiched between your pubic bone at the front of your pelvis. When the 6-pack muscle is moving upward, it’s pulling on the cartilage disk. Because that disk is a part of your pubic bone, the whole pelvis shifts into alignment. When the pelvic floor muscles are held, it adds support and strength to that alignment, sharing a small amount of the load with the 6-pack muscle doing most of the actual aligning. Below is yet another finger painting, this time it’s a side view of your pelvis entitled “Sorry I drew with my finger again”: