Tango Cross-Training: Lumbar Spine and Posture
Eric and I have been talking a lot lately about our cross-training and body conditioning efforts and how they impact our dance. This post is about conditioning your body, in which we explore various posture or movement issues and the exercises that will help correct them.
Sometimes our bodies actually inhibit our good posture.
While we are always finding ways to correct our posture, many times a day, everyday, we realize that sometimes our bodies actually inhibit our good posture, because they are weak in some places, too tight in others, and maybe even too flexible. Today we are going to look specifically at the lumbar spine (that's the low back), since it is often the source of spinal postural problems and for many of us, pain.
So here is the region considered the lumbar spine, which naturally has a curvature of about a 30-35% angle:
The natural inward curvature of our low back is technically called lordosis. Often, the lordosis is exaggerated, in which case, we refer to it as hyperlordosis. Most lumbar spine problems come from either a natural hyperlordosis, a deliberately exaggerated one, the over correction of lordosis, and pelvic misalignment. We'll look at all of these more closely below.
Do you have any of the following problems?
Posture: Lumbar Hyperlordosis
Lumbar hyperlordosis occurs when the pelvis tilts forward, creating an exaggerated curve in the lumbar spine.
Women have a greater tendency to adopt a hyperlordodic posture, but men also possess this inclination. We see exaggerated hyperlordosis very commonly in Argentine tango followers as they seek the connection with their partner by displacing their ribcage forward and sticking their bottoms out. They then need to tilt their pelvis forward to maintain their "axis." Some followers even pursue and develop this look as a stylistic element.
However, creating an exaggerated curvature in the spine is likely to create back, sacral, and knee problems, also reducing our ability to maintain core strength over time.
Causes of hyperlordosis can vary, but common ones include weak abdominal muscles and/or tight psoas and hip flexors.You will need to assess your body for reasons you might have hyperlordosis. Sometimes, all you need is to become aware of it, and correct it by lengthening your spine and adjusting your sacrum.
If doing this feels strained, you might want to look at strengthening your abdominal muscles (but not your hip flexors). To isolate your abs, crunches are common approach. You will want to do proper crunches, not flat-back sit-ups, which can actually strengthen and tighten your hip flexors, rather than your abdominals. Another good abdominal strenghtening exercise is to lie on your back and extend both feet straight up. With your hands behind your head, you can lift your shoulders and upper torso off of the floor and hold this position for ten long breaths. Stretching your hip flexors can also be beneficial if they seem tight.
On a daily basis, find moments to make sure that you are toning your abdominal muscles enough so that you contain your organs (rather than letting your tummy hang out), but be careful of over contracting these. There is an important balance to finding stability and release, as always.
Sometimes, we focus so much on having a straight spine, we will unnaturally reduce the lordosis in our lumbar spine by adopting a posterior tilt in our pelvis. Since our spine sits at a slight angle on our sacrum, over-straightening our back can also be damaging to our intervetebral disks. Over development of the abdominal muscles relative to spinal extensors can also contribute to an overly flat back.
There is a lot of information on flat back posture in the scoliosis community, since there were scoliosis treatment methods used early on that straightened the lumbar spine, eventually causing the fusion of vertabral discs. People with severe flat back syndrome have to bend their knees to maintain an upright position. Flat back can also be caused by other forms of spinal degeneration. Since most flat-back cases are a result of medical causes, rather than postural ones, our cross training approaches might not be applicable, unless you are sure that your flat back is a result of postural causes.
As a general rule, we can assess postural problems by looking at how muscle groups contribute to the extension or flexion of the spine. Just the opposite of lordosis, flat back posture is characterized by weak spinal extensors, psoas, and hip flexors, and/or over developed abdominals and hamstrings.
Addressing your flat back might be as simple, however, as correcting the tilt of your pelvis. If you are consciously tucking your pelvis in an attempt to lengthen through your tailbone and sacrum or to stand up straight, you might be exaggerating the alignment so that your pelvis is actually tilting back. Relaxing your abdominal muscles and glutes might be enough.
If trying to reestablish a healthy lumbar curve is strenuous, you might want to consider strengthening your spinal extensors, psoas, and hip flexors. You can do back lifts by lying on your tummy, putting your hands on your head and slowly elevating and lowering your chest. To strengthen your psoas and hip flexors, you can lie on your back with your feet on the floor and bent knees and slowly raise and lower your hips, as well as doing flat-back sit-ups.
In addition to strengthening exercises, stretch your abdominals with some cat-cow stretches or by lying on your tummy and lifting your torso with your arms to get a full stretch. Don't forget, also, to stretch and release your hamstrings. There are a number of common hamstring stretches, including a runners stretch, and forward folds with one or both legs straight.
Posture: Hips-Forward (Swayback/Fatigue)
Another extremely common postural tendency is called swayback, which in dancers is often referred to as Fatigue posture. It occurs when the pelvis shifts forward, often tilting up slightly, with hyperextended knees. Teenagers, dancers, and older individuals commonly adopt fatigue posture (though for very different reasons, naturally!). This position actually recruits the support of ligaments to hold the body upright, so that the individual can remain standing with very little use of their muscles, which is why it is called "fatigue" posture. It is also sometimes accompanied by an increased curvature, or kyphosis, of the thoracic spine and forward head, as the upper spine shifts back to compensate for the hips shifting forward.
Swayback might be easily confused with hyperlordodic posture, since there is an exaggerated curve in the lumbar spine. However, in the case of swayback, drawing the sacrum down, as you can do to correct hyperlordosis, is relatively ineffective. In this case, the pelvis is in a neutral or posteriorly tilted position and such a correction would show very little improvement.
Swayback tends to be accessible to people who have extremely flexible hip flexors and/or atrophy or underdevelopment of gluteal muscles.
It's important, as in all postural problems, to ask yourself why you have adopted a posture, especially in swayback. Here, the answer might well be laziness or ease, since in this place, we have to work very little, hanging out on our ligaments. In this case, it can be as simple as drawing your hips back into alignment with your ribs (and vice versa, if you are dropping your torso back). Notice, especially, where the weight is on the bottom of your foot. If it is forward, toward the balls, your hips are also probably falling forward. If, when you try to correct it, your weight ends up in your heel and you feel like you might tip over, you could be overcorrecting. Try to find the place where your weight is centered between the balls and heels of your feet.
If that's not the case, it might be a result of underdeveloped or atrophied muscles, which make standing properly feel strained and tiring. In swayback posture, the weak muscles tend to be the lower abdominals and hip flexors (which additionally tend to be loose) and upper back extensors. The hamstrings and upper abdominals tend to be tight.
The first place to start is the core, since good core strength is often the best antidote to poor posture and back pain. In particular, strengthening the external obliques will be beneficial. You can do this by performing plank and side plank exercises. In plank, you will lie on your stomach, curl your toes with both feet on the floor, and lift your torso off of the floor, with your arms either extended fully (like the top of a pushup) or bent, with your weight resting on your forearms. Side plank is performed with your body facing to the side, the outside of one foot on the ground, and one arm in the air. The arm supporting your weight can be straight, or bent so that you rest on your forearm.
For general back health, cat-cow stretches are good and relatively safe for stretching both your lower back and your abdominals. To do this, you get on your hands and knees, with your hands under your shoulders, and knees under your hips. Then, let your abdomen drop so that you find a nice arch in your back. Following that, do the opposite, rounding your back, and bringing your belly button toward your spine. It helps to inhale as you arch your back and exhale as you round it.
Whenever performing strength exercises and stretching, it's very important to move as slowly as possible, and build up over time so that you don't strain or tear tissues. Slow movement also builds up endurance that allows you to function with increased strength and tone even when you are not performing your exercises. This, naturally, is important for tango, since we spend hours dancing socially and we need good core strength and endurance to do so in a way that is healthy for our bodies.
Please remember this article is intended to get you to actively think about your posture and identify problems. We think that the more knowledge and awareness you have about your body, the more empowered you are to identify and shift unhealthy habits into healthy ones. Ultimately, if we seek to honor our bodies and keep them healthy, we can express ourselves more easily in the dance and be more fully present outside of the dance. If you find this piece useful, I highly recommend doing more research about your postural tendencies and ways to fix them. If you need even more guidance, consult a personal trainer, a physical therapist, or better, a Feldenkrais practitioner, Alexander Technique Specialist, or other posture/movement therapist, especially if you have more serious issues. These modalities will help you become more aware of your body, allowing you to find your best posture. When you dance tango, tune into your posture as often as possible and remember to be in your body!