| Simon Bradley | Mai 2019 |
To be at your best as a performing artist requires being at your best in physical health. An actor or musician needs to be strong, flexible and physically fit because your body is part of – if not quite literally IS – your instrument! Core strength is a must, alongside muscular strength, endurance and agility.
Core Strength refers to the strength of not only the surface muscles around the front, sides and back of the middle part of the body, but also deeper muscles that are harder to reach and activate, but that are intrinsic to all of our bodies movements.
A very effective exercise to develop core strength is the “Plank”. This exercise features in many gym and fitness routines, but it also plays a part in yoga too, and in particular forms the basic structure and starting position for a posture named “Chaturanga Dandasana” (more on this a little later, after we look at the basic Plank first…)
The Plank can be done a number of different ways and with various modifications to make it easier or more challenging. Firstly it can be done either with arms straight and forming the basic support with your hands (or sometimes the knuckles in a fist – being sure to keep your wrists straight and strong if done this way!), or by resting instead on the forearms and elbows. This really is a matter of preference, because in my experience, both as a Trainer and also from my own practice, some people find it easier on the elbows and forearms, and some people find it easier with arms straight. Neither is right or wrong, nor necessarily harder or easier. If the placement of the arms and hands is correct, the work is still being done in a very similar way in either version by the core muscles in the central part of the body. So if one doesn’t work, then try the other way!
To modify the Plank to make it easier and manageable for many people and for many reasons, both of the above “full” versions can be done simply with the knees resting on the floor, in what is often referred to as a “Half Plank”.
To perform the Plank, and in fact either version, half or full, (because the Half Plank is a good starting position before lifting into the full version) start off in an “All fours” position on your hands and knees, and then either take the hands further forward or your knees further backwards until you are in the Half Plank, with your knees on the floor, but the body in a straight line from knees to the top of your head. (It is actually useful to have a mirror wherever possible so you can yourself see from the side and judge whether the body is in the correct position and shape). At this stage tilt your pelvis and pull in your stomach so that your lower back flattens. This is key to activating your core and preventing any strain in your back. Keep your stomach muscles squeezing tight and hard for as long as you hold the plank. In fact when you can no longer do this, it is time to stop the exercise, to prevent the effort redistributing into other unwanted areas such as your lower back.
If you do have a mirror, look to make sure your lower back is as flat as it can be – even if it means the hips seem a little high – it is better that the lower back is flat rather than curving and sinking downwards. Also make sure in both the Half and Full Plank that the arms (or upper arms in the Elbow version) are straight up and down or vertical, with wrist joints underneath the shoulder joints. It is key that the body remains as straight as possible, but with stomach tight and lower back as flat as possible – all at the same time!
Chaturanga Dandasana (“The Four-Limbed Staff Pose”) – sometimes called a “Low Plank”
This posture usually forms part of a sequence in yoga, a traditional “Sun Salutation” or “Vinyasa” – or flowing sequence of one posture followed by another and linked with a sequential breathing pattern. Chaturanga Dandasana (or Chaturanga for short), starts with the body in the Plank (describes above), and then consists of bending the arms until the body is hovering just above the ground. It is important to keep the elbows inwards and close to the body, pinned into the sides of the torso, and even more important to maintain the body in the straight line Plank shape, with core engaged, stomach muscles strong and squeezed, pelvis tilted and lower back as flat as possible. The shape of the Plank hasn’t changed, the body has simply been lowered into what is now Chaturanga Dandasana.
Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward Facing Dog)
Most people have at least heard of (even if they’ve never actually done!) the Downward Facing Dog, but the Upward Facing Dog is perhaps not as commonly known. But if you have ever done a Sun Salutation or Vinyasa Flow sequence, you will have encountered this posture. It actually follows on from the above Chaturanga Dandasana and then leads into a Downward Facing Dog (which will be a Posture to explore in more depth in an upcoming issue!)
Upward Facing Dog can also be approached in a number of ways, according to ability and experience, and with modifications to make it easier or harder. Essentially the difference lies in how the feet move in the transition from Chaturanga into Upward Facing Dog. The full version, which also gives the smoothest transition, is to “roll” over the toes without altering their position, as you swing the torso forward and upward into a backward bend. The body then “hangs” in this curve, with arms vertical, wrists under shoulders, shoulders down and broad, and the legs strong and straight and balanced on the tops of the feet. The knees in this full version never touch the ground, and the toes (and hands) haven’t moved either and in fact remain in this same position when subsequently transitioning from here into Downward Facing Dog (another article to come!). Finally, in the Upward Facing Dog, one could look up, extending and lengthening the neck in order to complete the curve of the posture
This version of the “Upward Dog” (even sometimes shortened to “Up-Dog”!) requires a certain amount of strength in both the arms and in the toes themselves, and comes with practice! One alternative approach instead of “rolling” over the toes is to turn the feet, one by one, onto the tops of the toes (whilst in Chaturanga) and to then carefully arch the spine into Upward Dog. This is slightly different as it involves a slight alteration in the positioning of the feet and therefore the distance between the feet and hands, but it is an acceptable alternative.
Another modification, and perhaps the easiest approach, is to place the knees on the ground first, and then flatten the feet by extending the toes backwards and then lifting the knees back up into the full Upward Dog. (Note: this is a different posture to the Cobra posture, Bhujangasana, also to be explored in a future article, but in brief the difference is that in the Cobra the legs and hip area stays grounded, literally on the ground, whereas in Upward Facing Dog the only points of contact with the floor are the hands and the tops of the feet.
Dumbbell or Barbell Pullover
This weight-training exercise is a great way of strengthening upper body muscles like the chest, shoulders and upper back, but it is also a great stretch for the spine and is an especially great way of expanding the ribs, chest and thoracic area for Performing Artists wanting to work on this area.
It can also be performed once again in a number of different ways. The first is lying supine “along a bench” as in the above photo, and holding either a straight Barbell or an “E- Z” bar for a different grip. The arms remain in their extended and straight position throughout, although a slight bend in the elbows is ok if it stays the same throughout the arc of the movement. On a breath in, the weight is lowered overhead and as far back as one can stretch, and then on a breath out the weight is brought back up.
The alternative version is done lying “across” a bench with the upper back resting along the bench and either two dumbbells, one in each hand, or alternatively (and more traditionally) one dumbbell of equivalent weight held between two hands, in such a way to ensure a secure grip (pictured below). The “Cross-bench version allows for more curve of the spine and therefore overall stretch in the body, but requires a bit of practice to feel comfortable performing. Both versions are done in the same way, following the same arc, or “pullover” movement.
So there you have it. Some great exercises to strengthen, stretch and condition the body, not only for the Performing Arts but also for life in general. See you next time.