One of the most common complaints I hear from dancers is in regards to calf tightness and achilles pain. Despite diligent stretching, foam rolling and massage, the problem just doesn’t tend to budge.
That is because the underlying issue is being missed!
If you’re feeling pain in your calves or achilles, this is typically because of increased messaging from the brain to the calves. The calves and achilles lack the help needed during times of increased demand. A lack of 3-Dimensional movement above and below the calves causes them to become inflamed. If you’re experiencing pain or stiffness, stretching isn’t going to cut it. Your muscle just fires right back up the next time you activate it. So let’s talk about achilies health!
Three Planes of Motion Explained
What does 3-dimensional movement have to do with the increased messaging to the calves? Let’s first review what the three planes of motion are:
- Sagittal Plane (Forward & Back Movement)
- Frontal Plane (Side to side Movement)
- Transverse Plane (Rotational Movement)
Our body works in all three planes at once. No joint moves solely in one plane. Our muscles attach in a way that moves us in at least two planes at a time. For instance, your gastrocnemius… it doesn’t just point the toes & lift the heel. It can also turn the heel inward (inverts)… another turns the heel outward (everts).
The sport of dancing is very demanding on each of those planes, however the act of extending the spine, coming up on the toes, and tensing the quads are extremely frequent movements for dancers. These are all predominantly SAGITTAL plane movements. With time, the sagittal plane becomes the most dominant.
As sagittal plane movement becomes more dominant, we begin to “lock up” the other two planes of motion. So much so, that we can start doing lateral and rotational activities with sagittal plane muscle groups (enter the calves…).
For example, let’s take this gymnast I worked with. She had chronic achilles pain that her college athletic trainers just could not settle down. Most of her pain was on the balance beam (which requires a ton of FRONTAL plane control). She had been so stuck from using her powerful back, calves, and quads, that she was unable to activate the lateral movers without compensation.
The calves will take over as ankle stabilizers and knee stabilizers… in addition to their primary role of pointing toes, jumping, etc. No wonder they were so overworked!
How to help
First step is to get “unstuck” by settling down the dominant Sagittal plane. This exercise is a great way to do that… by addressing ALL the sagittal plane muscles at once: Calf and Extensor Inhibition ** Dancers tend to be able to walk way forward… missing that sweet spot. I recommend only walking the feet forward a few steps, even if you have the ability to go farther.
Next, is to isolate some very specific muscles in the Frontal Plane, with careful attention not to allow the sagittal lane to dominate. This is a great activity to start that process! Frontal Plane Hip Lift
Lastly, is to be aware of the sagittal plane wanting to dominate again & stay ahead of it. For example, after doing a lot of back extension or calf activities, do the opposite (like exercise 1) to keep from getting dominated by the extensors. And pay attention to how you move & stand OUTSIDE of dance. Breathe OUT often. Don’t stand forward on your toes. Don’t poke the chest forward with standing or exercise. Wear shoes that guide lateral and rotational movements of the heel.
Bottom Line: The Sagittal Plane is bossy and dominant, it will take over for a lack of ability in the other planes. Likewise, improving the lateral (FRONTAL) movements & rotational (TRANSVERSE) abilities will help keep the Sagittal Plane, and your calves, from dominating.