Understand the basics of strength training, how to start a strength training routine specially catering to the needs of dancers and bust those myths behind strength / endurance training for dancers.
Dancers are required to jump, catch partners, move down onto the floor and up out of the floor at fast speeds, and perform other explosive movements. All of these movements require muscular strength and power. Although technique classes can help improve muscular strength and power, they don't always focus on increasing strength and power as one of the primary goals.
With more and more focus on the stylistic and artistic aspects of dancing rather than on adequate repetitions to develop strength, power, and endurance, it has become more imperative that dancers do supplementary exercises for muscular strength, power, and endurance outside of the dance technique classes.
Without a certain baseline of these essential abilities, you are more likely to incur musculoskeletal imbalances and injuries. Injuries developed from muscular imbalances or lack of core strength in large and explosive movements is common. Strength training is also vital to minimize the risk of injury as it helps increase joint stabilization and improve bone health.
The Basics of Strength Training
Strength training is commonly done using resistance machines or free weights, such as dumbbells. Amongst dancers, exercise bands are top-rated equipment as is using your body weight through push-ups and leg lunges. It is recommended to exercise larger muscle groups before smaller ones as smaller ones fatigue more quickly. Also, alternating muscle groups will allow for recovery.
To gain strength in muscles, take a muscle through its full range of motion for 8 to 12 repetitions. To know if the amount of weight or resistance is challenging you should feel muscular fatigue at the end of the set. Younger dancers rehabilitating from an injury are advised to use lower weight or resistance and higher numbers of repetitions.
Remember to perform fast repetitions for exercises targeting muscular power.
When exercising for muscle strength, muscles to be strengthened should be isolated; carry out the correct motion in a smooth and controlled manner without other muscles compensating ( which typically happens when people are tired, and they let other muscles take over for the fatigued muscles).
Three Exercise Forms That Build Strength Training for Dancers
Most dancers are familiar with Pilates exercises as many of the mat exercises incorporated as a warm-up exercise are part of Pilates. Pilates is a wonderful option for dancers because it focuses on stretching and strengthening the muscles and is excellent for a dancer's body conditioning. It doesn't need any equipment and if the dancer chooses to take it to the next level, there are always accessories and machines available.
Yoga compliments dance beautifully. It is a gentle way of working on strength and flexibility, and you determine when and how much to push yourself. Yoga practice is as beneficial in strengthening the mind as it is about strengthening your body. The asanas, especially the breathing techniques help calm your nerves and your mind and easing any pre-performance anxiety and stage fear.
Probably the biggest misconception amongst dancers is that if you lift weights, you will bulk up (more on addressing this myth later).
Bulking up requires being in the gym for most of your day, supplementing your diet with a lot of protein shakes and lifting hefty weights. Since dancers rarely engage in these practices, lifting weights and adding strength training to your routine will help to hold your own body up strong and immensely in partner work. Set a goal of 10 – 12 reps of exercise 2 – 3 times and then rest.
Starting Dance Students on a Strength Training Routine
Here are some guidelines for dancer teachers beginning a strength training program. As any fitness program, a good dance instructor or fitness coach will ensure the dancer is cleared for injuries, has got a proper assessment of his or her current fitness levels and there are no symptoms of over-training.
1) Master techniques to keep the spine, pelvis, neck, and every joint neutral.
Teach your students to neutralize as it is fundamental. Learning to keep joints neutral may not be rocket science, but you will be grateful for having learned these techniques when your body is older.
Many dancers want more flexibility, but what they need is stability first. They need more muscle activation so that they can get to a neutral position because their ligaments aren't holding things in place anymore. Once they accomplish this, they can start to consider if they need that extra flexibility.
Finding neutral for a hypermobile person is like getting the splits out of a stiff person. It takes daily work to get that range of motion.
2) Emphasize postural education, not just exercises, and stretches
Educate dancers on awareness of their current posture, and teach them what "good posture" is.
From foot to head.
Many dancers don't even consider that they have bad posture. And what is worse is that many dancers take pride in their poor postural tendencies, like walking with their feet pointing out. Some dancers believe that the posture (no matter how painful it is) is part of what makes them feel like a dancer. Take the time and energy required to assess your alignment, fix it, and enjoy the ease that follows.
Postural education is even more critical than training sessions. Even though you may focus on keeping your form and posture well for a few hours in the week, there are so many other hours in the week where you may undo it. Continual postural education is vital for injury prevention, and to continue to progressively develop strength and improve alignment in dance class, too.
3) Common muscle imbalances to keep in mind
Here's a short list of muscles that I often see are weak and need to spend some time "waking up" initially:
- Quadratus lumborum
- Rectus abominis/ TVA
- Mid and lower trapezius
- Glute max
- Hip internal rotators (TFL, glute med/min)
Keep in mind that depending on the individual, this will vary. And on the flip side, many dancers will have compensations in which muscles are up-regulated and need to be released first (via some form of soft tissue work, stretching, etc).
Here are some common ones:
- Calves (gastrocnemius, soleus, and some others too, depending on the person)
- Spinal erectors
- Neck extensors
- Pec minor.
These are only the common ones, and there are exceptions to the rule and other things to consider.
4) Train like any other athlete
If the dancer is structurally ready and has no weird pain or injuries that need addressing, dancers can be put on a plan similar to athletes. Dancers are no different from other athletes in the respect that they still should train with full body compound exercises in a well-rounded program that is complementary to the competitive/performance season they are in.
Use full body movements like squats, lunges, deadlifts, rows, push-ups, etc. Use perfect technique, with the ever-awareness of the compensation-masters that dancers are.
In fact, science has demonstrated that push-ups and vertical jump height are correlated to improved dancing in several studies. The staggeringly high injury rate in dancers should not deter you from resistance training, because it's the absence of said training that is associated with injury rate.
5) Monitor their recovery carefully
Many dancers become over-trained due to the stress that dance and the industry as a whole, places on the mind and body. Though strength training will help dancers improve their capacity for work, and make dancing itself less of a strain on the body, it too can be overdone at times.
6) Pay attention to which season you are in
To avoid burnout, you should also pay attention to which season you are in. Your training goals should be different in the on vs. off-season: You need to treat your body differently in the competition season compared to the summer when you are unlikely to be taking regular technique classes.
In fact, there is a belief that dancing should be optional in the summer off-season and this period should be a time for increased focus on strength and cross-training. This approach helps the dancer recover from the physical and mental duress of competitions, rehearsals, and intense technique classes, so they can come back fresh in the fall, ready to push past training plateaus.
7) Supplemental training
Supplemental training needs to be at an intensity that is higher than the typical technique class. A dancer should share her assessment on a scale of perceived exertion from one through ten. For instance, if the dancer feels she is working at a six or seven during the most strenuous part of technique class, undertaking supplemental training at least at an eight will be beneficial.
8) Additional Conditioning
The type of additional conditioning should be geared towards the dancer’s weaknesses. A dancer facing difficulty with slower movements may lack strength while if she needs help moving more quickly she should train for power.
9) Strength-building exercises
Strength-building exercises can be included by pairing dancers up and asking them to provide manual resistance for each other
10) Plyometric-type exercises
Plyometric-type exercises can be incorporated into a class by asking dancers to complete several jumps in sequence while focusing on explosiveness instead of technique. Visualizing “exploding like a rocket ship” or “reaching for the stars” may be useful.
However, these techniques should be used with utmost caution with dancers of little training. Explosive movements must be integrated gradually to allow the muscles to adapt to the high forces they produce
11) Supplemental conditioning
Supplemental conditioning should take place well before any scheduled performances. The higher intensities can temporarily cause fatigue, and the body requires time and rest to adapt. Roughly two weeks should separate the end of a conditioning program and the beginning of a performance period.
Addressing The Myths Behind Strength / Endurance Training for Dancers
In the dance world, the role of strength training has been the subject of many a myth. Concerns about increased muscle strength negatively affecting flexibility and aesthetic appearance still abound. However, research has demonstrated that supplemental strength training can lead to better dancing and reduced occurrences of dance injuries, without interfering with key artistic and aesthetic requirements.
Exercises should be specific to the desired outcome, so it is best to plan a program that has a particular goal- body conditioning, knee strengthening, or strengthening a weak area in the dancer's body are some goals; for men, it could be upper body strength that is required for partner lifts, etc.
Strength training can be done with very heavy weights/resistance and few repetitions for a short amount of time, or light weights/resistance with more repetitions for a prolonged time. A combination of high intensities (70 – 100% of maximum) and low volumes of workout, two to three times a week is designed to increase muscle strength. Take 5- 6 minutes break between sets for a full recovery.
Dancers wanting to increase muscle endurance are prescribed a combination of moderate intensities (60 – 70% maximum) and high volumes of work, three to four times a week. In this case, rest periods are limited to 2 – 4 minutes and the next set of exercises begins before full recovery.
I’d like to sign off by saying that it is heartening to note that most good ballet schools now have scheduled breaks for fitness development and also make efforts to educate their dancers on a holistic fitness plan.
By employing professionals like physiotherapists, Pilates experts, performance psychologists and nutritionists, ballet companies and dance studios are putting into action their commitment towards making dancing a better profession.
With the goal of injury prevention and improving the overall health and strength of dancers, top dance companies also have recovery tutors who watch out for potential injury worries and intervene in time.