Present Tense Fitness

Dance and Sports Performance

Strength training and conditioning approaches for dancers

Spinal Extension: Strategies and Pitfalls

Last week in this space we talked a bit about the hip extension aspect of arabesque. This week I’d like to focus on the spinal extension piece of this foundational ballet posture, with some attention paid to how a dancer might get herself into trouble trying to improve spinal extension.

You’ve undoubtedly noticed that Functional Range Conditioning influences our approach to strength training. When it comes to the spine, we’re going to be thinking about FRC principals alongside other disciplines, including yoga and Pilates, because how much these movement systems focus on vertebral control. Today I want to focus on two things: FRC’s “PAILS and RAILS,” and yoga’s “cat and cow,” or “cat and camel.”


Cat/cow is a classic yoga movement wherein a person moves through spinal flexion (think of an angry or scared cat) and spinal extension (belly hangs low, like a cow). Hypermobile people who are attracted to things like yoga and ballet can easily get into impressive-looking cat/cow postures. But the problem is, they almost certainly shouldn’t be trying to exploit all of that range of motion on a yoga mat. Understand the distinction I’m making here: onstage, dancers need to do what they need to do. But in a yoga studio or strength training facility or on a Pilates reformer, their coach or teacher needs to make sure that they are staying within a safe range of motion.

What makes this particularly difficult when it comes to the spine? It’s up to the client to understand what’s good and what’s not good. Here, yoga teacher Anna Shearer—more importantly, the person who pushes me to be smarter about spinal movement—demonstrates what I’m talking about.

Anna starts off in a quadriped position.


Now, as she drops into cow pose, notice the subtle difference between the next two images. In the first one she drops into a “good”—pain-free—range of motion.


But in the second image she’s going to exploit the extra range of motion she has available to her.


In a public yoga class, the teacher isn’t likely going to notice the difference between the two postures. Even though we’re focusing on spinal extension, we need to keep our eyes on Anna’s pelvic tilt. Someone on the mat next to Anna’s might be able to get into this second position pain-free. The tricky part, then, is Anna must know which posture is good for her and which one isn’t.

Anna, who teaches one-on-one sessions in our studio, talks at length about the difference between “productive sensation” and “non-productive” sensation. (And because we always like to show our work, Alexandria Crow has had a big influence on Anna’s approach to teaching yoga, and thus, my approach to working with strength training clients. If you’re familiar with Crow, you’ll recognize these concepts.)

  • Productive sensation: feeling the work within a sustainable range of motion

  • Non-productive sensation: painful or uncomfortable signals that should serve as a warning sign that this range of motion ultimately isn’t sustainable

So if we go back to the idea that hyper-mobile people tend to gravitate toward activities like yoga and dance, then we can see how this can cause problems. The hypermobile person might report at first that they can’t “feel” cow pose, so they crank into a deeper version of it searching for a sensation—a non-productive sensation, as it turns out.

This idea is an entire blog post by itself, but this is where dancers often get the “why” behind yoga wrong. Yoga is great for dancers not for increasing passive flexibility, but for increasing awareness.


How would we get a dancer to differentiate between good sensation and bad sensation on the mat? By slowing them down, segment by segment, rather than allowing them to mindlessly drop into cow pose. This approach, by the way, illustrates why we’re not at all dogmatic about how people move their body as long as they’re following best practices. You’ll see this segment-by-segment approach in Pilates, yoga, and FRC. The point isn’t whose trademarked system is used, but rather how attuned the person on the mat is to what’s going on in their body. That’s critical.

PAILs and RAILS—Progressive and Regressive Angular Isometric Loading—are an FRC technique designed to improve mobility, which is to say improve one’s ability to own a range of motion. Remember, we started this discussion by talking about arabesque, so what we’re after from a dance performance point of view is giving a dancer the ability to improve her arabesque safely, avoiding “non-productive sensation” off the stage.

Here we’re going to combine yoga’s cow pose with FRC’s PAILs and RAILs. As the acronym suggests, both techniques involve using isometric loading in order to grow new tissue in a range of motion the dancer needs to execute the posture. In this case, we’d have the dancer get into a cow pose, then create isometric tension. For PAILs she will attempt to pull her hands and knees together in the cow pose. For RAILs she will push her hands and knees away from each other.

In the next two videos, you’ll see what happens if we’re not methodical in getting the dancer into position properly. First, we’ll show you incorrect technique. Notice when she created the PAILs and RAILs tension, her spine compresses further, which could over time cause problems.

In the next video you’ll what happens when Anna gets into position properly, feeling each segment of her spine as she gets into position. Notice for both the PAILs and RAILs tension her body doesn’t move. The sensation she’ll feel is productive, and over time she’ll get progressively stronger through a greater range of motion in spinal extension—exactly what we’re looking for in a dance setting.

A strength coach working with dancers needs to use any available technique in order to be able to serve the needs of the population. What I hope I’ve demonstrated here is how yoga can be a critical piece of raising a dancer’s awareness of her own body, and that exploiting “bad” range of motion could be as injurious as not moving at all. The trick is to find what’s actually usable, then expand that range over time through methodical work and body awareness. We can’t control what dancers are asked to do during their work, but we can make sure they learn how to keep themselves safe off the stage while simultaneously improving their capacity to express their art. That’s the work.

Like what you’re reading? Be the first to find out about our Dancer’s Guide to Strength & Conditioning, coming this Fall 2019. Go here for more information.