The Core Part 2: The What, How, and When? from Susan Haines, MFA, NKT, FMT, IASTM

Woman working out on an exercise ball

The Core Part 2: The What, How, and When?

by Susan Haines, MFA, NKT, FMT, IASTM

In my last blog post, I discuss the importance of the synchronization of the pelvic and thoracic diaphragms in breath to create Intra-Abdominal Pressure. This is a “must have” for functional core support. So go back and read that one first. Seriously. Most dancers have neurologically “wired in” an upper chest and neck breathing pattern when they are dancing and in higher exertion activities, and we need to ensure that this first, vital step in core support is dialed in. Finding the appropriate breath patterning is key to building Intra-Abdominal pressure to be able to transmit force from the intrinsic core to the extrinsic core and to the limbs.

The majority of dancers that I train are very good at following directions, so they can find abdominal bracing while holding a plank, and they can find intra-abdominal pressure with the diaphragms and breath work when seated or in a Pilates class. The problem is, once they start moving it all goes out the window! This may be due to the fact that we separate the core and breath work in technique classes—these are frequently presented as supplemental conditioning exercises—and dancers do them very well! But the transfer of how and what form of core engagement should happen when is still muddy for most dancers. They just KNOW they should be using their core…more.

 Differing Viewpoints:

Two well known researchers, Stuart McGill and Paul Hodges, have some differing ideas about how we should be using the core in movement. Dr. Stuart McGill believes we need to brace the core, “Tighten abdominals without any change in the position of the muscles”. Dr. Paul Hodges and Carolyn Richardson support abdominal hollowing by “bringing the navel up and in towards the spine, so as to draw in the lower abdomen connected to the action of breath”.

McGill believes that “True spine stability is achieved with a ‘balanced’ stiffening from the entire musculature including the rectus abdominis and the abdominal wall, quadratus lumborum, latissimus dorsi and the back extensors of longissimus, iliocostalis and multifidus,” How do you stiffen the core to achieve spinal stability? McGill states that “bracing” through the entire musculature of the core enhances stability. “The abdominal brace enhances stability,” explains McGill, as it engages all of the important muscles. His cue to brace the abdominals: relax the abdominals and then push fingers into the oblique muscles about 5 to 12 cm lateral to the navel. Gently stiffen the abs—you will feel your fingers being pushed out. 

On the other side of the fence is Dr. Paul Hodges and Carolyn Richardson: “While core stability exercises are easy to teach, they involve very little movement of the spine,” says Hodges. "The common assumption in gyms is that people assume core stability means that you stop the spine from moving." That's not what core stability means, says Prof Hodges.

"Core stability is getting the balance between movement and stiffness with breath. "If you think about most functions, they actually need the spine to move," Hodges says. This blanket idea that proper core control should just be about stopping people from moving their spine is only half of the story. Many PTs and kinesiologist say Hodges and McGill are “both right” and point out that we DO need CONTROL and STRENGTH to manage the complexity of dance vocabulary.

Dancers (and all humans) need to be able to adjust their intra-abdominal pressure depending on the task at hand. If there’s too little pressure, the spine isn’t protected, and you may not be generating enough force to power the movement. If there’s too much pressure or bracing, you may feel stuck and unable to breathe or shift your weight in large, traveling movements. All of this fine tuning requires strength, stamina, and the appropriate neurological timing of the intrinsic and outer core muscles.

Current research also tells us that the fascial layers of the abdominal region and trunk must be able to glide and tension appropriately to support mobility and stability of the spine. Functional core support means we can generate force, and protect the spine during high compression forces and forceful twists, and access mobility and power through the coiling and uncoiling action of the fascia.

The Lumbar Spine is particularly susceptible to injuries for dancers. The Lower back is second highest region for injuries in dancers, after the ankle and foot. “Research into fascia has shown how it works on many levels as a distributive network. Put strain into the structure, and the deformation is distributed all over the structure. Where will a tensegrity structure break under strain? At its weakest point” Thomas Myers. For many dancers, the lumbar spine is that “weakest point.”

Master anatomist Kathy Dooley shares how we can transmit force from the abdominals. The external abdominal oblique (EAO) is an extrinsic core muscle that is meant to take intrinsic force (from structures like diaphragm and innermost abdominal muscles) and send it to the limbs. The obliques and their sling systems, diagonal sashes that wrap around the trunk like an X on front and back, these include the latissimus dorsi, gluteus maximus, internal obliques, must have appropriate tensioning and lengthening and fascial glide to ensure proper force transmission. And all of this requires appropriate neurological reaction timing, to ensure that we are able to handle fast, multiplanar movements with a functional core. This is the “when” of training the core. Training the body to handle quick weight shifts and allowing the core to practice reacting to gravity in a variety of positions will help the central nervous system be able to predict how much to “turn up the dial” of Intra-Abdominal Pressure for functional, strong dancing!

Join me on March 6th 7:00pm EST on Apolla Live on Instagram for a donation based workshop: “Saturday Night Core Party! Training your Core Reaction Timing 

or visit for online courses.

Bond, Mary, The New Rules of Posture, 2007, Healing Arts Press, Rochester
Dicharry, Jay, Anatomy for Runners, 2012 Skyhorse Publishing, New York
Dooley, Kathy,
Gerritsen, R. and  Band, G. “Breath of Life: The Respiratory Vagal Stimulation Model of Contemplative Activity”, Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 2018; 12: 397.
Hodges, Paul, “Core Stability exercise in Chronic Low back Pain” Orthopedic Clinicals of North America 34 (2003) 245-254.
 Kline, J. Krauss, J. Maher, S. Xianggui, Q. Core Strength Training Using a Combination of Home Exercises and a Dynamic Sling System for the Management of Low Back Pain in Pre-Professional Ballet Dancers, Journal of Dance Medicine and Science, Vol. 17, No. 1, 2013.
Page, P, Franjk, C, Lardner, R, “Assessment and Treatment of Muscle Imbalance The Janda Approach, 2010, Human Kinetics, Champaign,IL.
 Sasaki K., Maruyama R. (2014). Consciously controlled breathing decreases the high-frequency component of heart rate variability by inhibiting cardiac parasympathetic nerve activity. Tohoku J. Exp. Med. 233, 155–163. 10.1620/tjem.233.155 [PubMed] [CrossRef] [Google Scholar]
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Susan Haines is a Dance Kinesiologist based in Bellingham, WA bridging the latest research in fascia, biomechanics, and neuroscience into dance training. Susan is a Level III NeuroKinetic Therapy practitioner; a sophisticated treatment modality that addresses the causes of dysfunctional movement in the motor control center. This work led her to create Dance Conditioning Technique, a unique training system that focuses on foundational strength. She has worked with dancers from American Ballet Theatre, American Repertory Ballet, Ballet Austin, and Oregon Balle Theatre to create conditioning programs for greater ease in turnout, pointe work, and partnering. She has an MFA from UNCG-Greesnboro where she studied with leaders in the field of Somatics and Kinesiology: Dr. Jill Green and B.J. Sullivan. She is a NCPT  Pilates instructor who studied under Carolyn Watson, MS, LaC, and Karen Clippinger. She is trained in functional movement patterning and taping with Dr. Perry Nickelston and is a certified FMT Mobility Specialist. She is on faculty at Western Washington University teaching contemporary, ballet, jazz, and kinesiology in her Apolla Shocks. She has presented her dance conditioning research at conferences nationwide.



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