The Quarantine Hip Crunch, and Other Safe-At-Home Trends
Every time I start a private session, I spend a few minutes checking in with my dancer. “What are you working on in ballet class? What sort of corrections are you getting? How’s your body feeling? Is there anything new going on I need to know about?” I can almost predict some of their answers simply by knowing where we are in a season: mid-Nutcracker brings mild overuse injuries and overall fatigue, while pre-audition season will often find neck and leg tightness and dancers try to push their limits as far as possible for showmanship and marketability. I see patterns emerging, and similar answers come from several dancers at the same time.
Interestingly enough, I’m seeing patterns during quarantine right now.
The first couple of weeks were filled with reports of restlessness and a sense of atrophying. Then teachers began pushing more center work and I saw dancers with low back tightness as they started doing more and more work on hard, unforgiving floors that don’t absorb their force as well.
And now? “Miss Jen, I’ve got this weird popping in my hip I didn’t used to have.”
I haven’t done a ton of research here (well, any, except asking around through my dancers), but I’m pretty sure I know what the culprit is. Time and again, dancers with good technique and healthy alignment are suddenly finding their hips popping in grand battements or developpés. When they report this, I ask them one question:
“Are you doing more conditioning on your own right now?”
The answer’s always “yes”.
Listen dancers, I get that you’re feeling antsy. I know you’re worried about staying in shape, and how it’s going to feel to be squeezing back into pink tights and standing before those enormous mirrors at some point. How those things make you feel emotionally might be something worth exploring with a friend or professional while you’re having this down time. But even if you have a healthy body image, you might be worrying about being in performance shape when you go back. So everyone’s taking all those free classes on social media right now, and throwing themselves through these group routines trying to push themselves to exhaustion, to feel that burn.
Stop doing that.
Now is not the time to add a bunch of new stuff to your routine, my friend, especially when a professional isn’t there to monitor your form. I love the traditional Pilates abdominal exercises as much as anyone, but even I don’t do them regularly (because variety is healthy!), and it takes a dancer working with me for a long time before I’m confident I can run them through the Series Five without major cheating going on.
Here’s the deal with typical “ab exercises”: you’ll find some variation of an abdominal crunch, along with some way of using your legs to add load to your pelvis and make your abs work harder. Think bicycle crunches, or single leg stretch, or pretty much any other typical exercise.
As you’re powering your way through these things, you might be feeling the burn, but there’s probably a whole lot of compromising going on at the same time. Your deep hip flexors - your psoas and your iliacus - should be working through a full range of motion, both concentrically - as the leg comes in - and eccentrically as the leg goes out. Dancers don’t often have full control of the psoas in its entire range, and your superficial hip flexors - those that you can feel if you touch the hip crease - will kick into overdrive to help.
That popping can be a few different muscles and I’m not here to diagnose or treat (that’s outside my scope anyway). Regardless of which muscle is causing the popping, I encourage you to do a few things to help get you back on track.
Decrease your range of motion If you’re doing something that has you lowering your legs, don’t lower them as far. Keep the leg higher, in a smaller arc, closer to the pelvis, whatever it takes. Don’t blow past that point of popping - we want you to go almost there but to stop before the pop. Hopefully, you’ll get stronger and be able to increase your range of motion gradually.
Slow down Yeah, I’m talking to you. There’s no prize for the most number of reverse crunches. Be methodical and listen to your body.
Be intentional about what you use As you’re going through the exercises, can you do them without feeling the front of your hips get tired? Because that’s the goal. If your superficial hip flexors are burning after an ab series, there’s really no point in doing it. Move through the exercise concentrating on firing the right muscles and keeping the others soft.
Bring your deep hip flexors and spine stabilizers back online If your psoas is dysfunctional, it can be a signal that your deep spine stabilizers aren’t working correctly. (This topic is at least a whole other blog post in itself, so just trust me here). You want to get your trunk to learn how to work efficiently, with the smaller muscles. Hands-down my favorite series to work on this is Lisa Howell’s Tucks and Tilts - here’s an excellent video she’s done on it (and it's part of a whole series on core stability I strongly recommend - start the series here). I teach this series to every dancer and encourage them to do it for a variety of reasons. It’s a great place to start.
If you really want to be ready when the studio opens back up, focus on those little technique glitches you need to work out. Strengthen those pesky foot muscles and calf muscles. Work through your relationship with food and your body image issues. Challenge yourself on your strength, agility, speed, technique - with professional guidance. If you can’t afford regular privates (I totally get it’s expensive!) then hire someone a couple times to talk you through typical group class exercises and at least give you pointers for correct form.
But know that you don’t need to do a thousand crunches a day to be studio-ready when the day finally comes. Your heart will be running ahead of you, jumping up and down as you find your place for company class And when you place your hand on that smooth round barre, you will know you’re home and those crunches won’t have mattered in the slightest. You’ll be ready.