Gymnasts and dancers overdevelop their hip flexors with all the leg raises they do. Eventually, in spite of all their splits and stretches, these muscles shorten (If you are curious why it happens, why relaxed stretching cannot help it, and what can be done about it—check out Power Stretching, the book.) They pull on the spine, inducing unhealthy hyperlordosis, or an exaggerated arch of the lower back.
Russian ballet dancers and gymnasts favor the drill I am about to describe because it trains the abs to stabilize their spines against their powerful hip flexors. This exercise also overloads the interspinales, deep muscles of the back, important for spinal health. In the process you will develop corrugated abs you will be proud of.
Start working one leg at a time. Lie on your back with one leg pointed straight at the ceiling—or its neighborhood, depending on your flexibility—and the other parked a la fossilized crunch. (Fig. 18) Flatten your lower back against the floor and keep it there for the duration of the set.
Inhale, squeeze your butt, and slowly lower your leg. Keep your toes pointed, and go down as low as you can while keeping your lumbar spine flat. Stop short of creating any discomfort in the small of your back. (Fig. 19) It is easy to let your back go concave without you realizing it. Initially, when you are learning the Russian Ballet Leg Thrust, have somebody try to slide a pen under your back. They should not be able to.
The tension in your abdominals will invariably drop if you breathe during this exercise, giving your hip flexors an opportunity to overpower your abs and possibly causing a back injury. That means that if your doctor disapproves breath holding during exercise-you have been excused from this drill, Comrade.
If you are forced to reverse the movement before you have reached the ground, keep holding your breath until you get back up then release it and relax for a second before the next repetition. If you have successfully lowered your paw to the floor (Fig. 20), park it and relax for a second before inhaling and heading back up. Work one side for the required number of reps—three to five—then take care of the other.
As you improve, gradually straighten out your planted leg until it is flat on the floor (Fig. 21 & 22). At this point you may add an ankle weight or switch to the two-legged version.
Lie down on your back and bring your knees towards your chest (Fig. 23), then follow the instructions for the one legged version of this evil drill.
If you are having trouble with this exercise, you could try an easier version, with your spine flexed forward, as in a crunch, and your head up. (Fig. 24)
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