This post was recently updated on December 1 2016
I’m going to rant just a little bit about something that frustrates me. Namely, dance fitness is not the same as “fitness for dancers”.
And it seems like a lot of people just don’t seem to get the F**cking diff.
The photo was taken in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where I was recently studying Thai massage. Gotta love Asia.
I feel that I have permission to rant because I have much more to contribute that I do to complain about. The rule: Ranting is not warranted unless you have something actionable and useful to follow up with.
Do dancers need to be more “fit”?
I’m kind of tired of answering this question, so I’ll let Sonia Rafferty do it:
“Studies have shown that performing dance in itself elicits only limited stimuli for positive fitness adaptations; professional dancers often demonstrate fitness values similar to those obtained from healthy sedentary individuals of comparable age.” (Rafferty, 2010)
“While technique classes focus on neuro-muscular coordination, the length of a traditional class may not be adequate to meet all of the dancer’s conditioning needs. The amount of space available, the numbers of students, and the time required for teaching and correcting also have an impact on work rate… Therefore, conditioning work over and above daily technique class has been recommended.“ (Rafferty, 2010)
What she said.
Unfortunately, some (the majority of, I’d say) dancers just don’t seem to get it because the message doesn’t reach them. As such, dancers end up wasting their time on well-intentioned exercises routines that aren’t serving them, just plain dancing too much and not resting, or, as will be the topic today, using dance-fitness as a means of cross-training.
“Dance for fitness” vs. “dancers getting more fit”
Dance fitness, as defined by Monika-pedia, is an exercise form for the general public who want to “get fit” by “working the same muscles dancers use” while completely separating the art from dancing, reducing it to a means to a vain end. Many people find the idea of using dance-like movements to get fit appealing because they can pretend they aren’t actually exercising while they get sweaty and burn calories, and might even be convinced that they are learning how to dance.
(Monika-pedia does not care about your feelings and is a rather sarcastic source).
The truth is, if you are serious about actually improving your fitness and movement mechanics to excel at dance, “dance fitness” is the last thing you should be doing.
I’m talking about the likes of Zumba, Barre Fitness, and Jazzercise, which are great for people who, if they weren’t at the class, would be sitting on the couch eating Tim Tams.
That said, if you find something that gets you moving, you get desirous results from it, and you love it, then who am I to tell you to do otherwise?
But keep your goals in mind, and make sure your actions are congruent with them.
If you are a dancer and you are spending your precious, limited time participating in dance fitness classes, thinking you’re cross-training, you’re failing at your goal and wasting your time.
If you are a classically trained ballet dancer, and you take barre fitness to work-out… Please tell me you can see what isn’t working about that sentence.
And then there are people who use dance fitness to get a “dancer’s body”. In barre fitness classes, and the Ballet Beautiful program, for example, you don’t learn how to do ballet technique, but you replicate moves that make it look like you’re doing something ballet-like, stripping it of the artistry that actually makes ballet beautiful, hoping it will help you to develop “long lean muscles” that ballet dancers have.
To make a muscle longer requires that the bone also becomes longer, stretching won’t accomplish this.
You’ll have to get Gattaca on your femur if you want longer thigh muscles.
And to make a muscle “leaner” requires wasting of the tissues through disuse and caloric deficit, something a particular style of exercise can’t do, no matter what the claim may be.
To make a muscle “bulky”, aka increase in size, requires intentionally training with high repetitions, high volume, and moderate intensity (like a body-builder would choose), while eating heaps of protein and carbohydrates to create a caloric surplus (more in than out). In dance the stimulus to the muscles is not at all sufficient to create extreme hypertrophy (aka “bulk”), but it is enough to create hypertonicity. If ballet does make ballet dancers bulky, then we would probably see more bulky ballerinas.
Whether a dancer develops larger muscles is influenced strongly by genetics, and other forms of training they have done prior to, or in conjunction with their dancing. Misinforming dancers these truths often does more harm than good and can lead to feelings of shame about their bodies, which, along with other negative emotional experiences, research is correlating with injury risk and inability to cope with injury.
And if you think that having muscle or lifting weights will make you less flexible, just fast forward to 3:30 and check out my friend Renaldo being a badass:
But wait! How can he do the splits with all that bulk? His muscles must be long and lean enough… Actually, Renaldo’s a tall dude, so his muscles ARE pretty long. And he doesn’t have much body fat, does he, so he IS lean. Do you nomesayin’?
What’s the point, Monika?
As a dancer, and if you are serious about becoming the best dancer you can be, you should be informed and choose critically the methods you are using to cross-train. The hours you have available to participate in something other than dancing are limited, use them intelligently. Chances are if you’re using a barre class to keep “in shape”, that hour and a half could be better used recovering with a nap. I’m 100% serious about that.
What should you do to cross train? I can’t tell you exactly what, nor do I want to. Every dancer is a human with unique needs. Get assessed. Identify your individual limiting factors and address them. Too, every dance style has different physical requirements that should be considered and trained outside regular class time.
Please don’t misconstrue fitness for dancers as dance fitness, as the two are completely different.
When is it ok to do dance fitness classes? If you meet the following criteria, it’s probably reasonable to participate in a dance fitness class:
- You are you a regular person who doesn’t dance seriously or as a career choice
- You just want to move around a bit and work up a sweat
- You think the idea of dance is nice, definitely more appealing that jogging
- Don’t have any goals in particular, or they are vague, like, you just want to get “in shape” and “tone up”
- You don’t care much about getting stronger, developing muscle, being athletic, or dead-lifting mad weight
- You aren’t worried about improving your efficiency and quality of movement, because ain’t nobody got time for that, you just want to sweat and feel the burn.
Be my guest and Zumba yourself silly.
As for the rest of you…
Well, I can’t tell you what to do. But I can steer you in the direction of a resource that I created (shameless plug warning). I’ll leave you with my recommendation to check out Dance Stronger, a multi-media resource (ebook + online program) I created with the goal of sharing a philosophy and method for using supplementary training to support your dancing.
For now, it is still available by donation, making it a bargain compared to that over-priced barre class.
Questions? Comments? Abuse? Let ‘er rip.
Welcome back to the discussion! Let’s jump right in (haha, get it? Jump? Cause it’s a plyo article??)…
In PART 1, which you should read now if you haven’t already, Joel did a great job of detailing exactly what plyometric training is, and how it could potentially help dancers develop jump height, and just plain dance better in general.
I agree with the things Joel was saying, but I was a little disappointed that his article didn’t answer all my questions. A foolish notion, I know, to expect to ask one question and get all the answers.
My main concern was, yes, in theory, it sounds like plyometric training, which is great for athletes who want to improve their power and jump height is a good idea. But dancers are a little different than other athletes.
And yes, dancers are indeed athletes. The definition below could be used for “dancer” to a TEE, if you added in something about artistic expression at the end.
Athlete- “Someone who engages in social comparison (competition) involving psycho-motor skill or physical prowess (or both) in an institutionalized setting, typically under public scrutiny/evaluation.” (Baechle & Earle, 2008)
So anyway, should dancers even perform plyometric training? Is it good for them? Do the benefits outweigh the risks?
Here are the major concerns I have:
1) Do dancers need a particular level of relative strength before beginning plyo training? For example, the NSCA recommends (and this is probably for men, mind you) that before beginning a plyometric training program, athletes should have at least a 1.5x bodyweight squat. Considering that barely any dancers even resistance train, I don’t know of a single dancer that meets that qualification.
And also, based on that, a lot of people would be shot for the things they do in the gym.
Then I stumbled across this (go read it), from Vertical Jumping (.com) and it seems they’re of the opinion that “strength first” is a myth. Hmmm.
It is silly to think that beginner athletes without a large strength base can’t handle plyometric training. You just need to use exercises that don’t have the same degree of landing forces, or if you want to use the shock methods, you simply use a lower box height that allows the athlete to still be challenged, but also to safely perform the exercise.
And Joel said this:
I agree with you [Monika]. This recommendation [strength first] may be more applicable to athletes who don’t have experience with power training. Dancers incorporate plyometrics into their training already. I don’t think there are big injury concerns if they get started immediately (even without the strength base).
Moving along to my second concern about dancers doing extra plyo:
2) Many dancers are constantly performing through their injuries, which are rarely ever diagnosed. Most often, these injuries are only addressed when they get to the point that they can’t even dance anymore. I remember needing to take pre-show painkillers to perform. Not a fun time.
Encounters, choreographed by Arsenio Andrade- This was a performance I distinctly remember needing copious doses of ibuprofen to get on stage for…
These injuries, especially to their backs, knees, hips and ankles, could potentially be aggravated by additional plyometric training. And the fact that dancers will need to often perform through these injuries might in itself be a contraindication for doing plyo training.
If you are a dancer, and you love your art, you will do what you need to do, which probably means performing through an injury. We’ve all done it. I’m not saying this is good, but I’m saying it might be necessary at some point, and so you may not want to put any extra stress on your vulnerable joints.
For example, I am working with a couple of dancers right now who are recovering from pretty awful ankle sprains, and one who has some nasty hip and back dysfunction, which causes her pain. Would I make these guys jump up and down any more than they need to? No, probably not.
Yes, these injuries are a major concern. Dancers train through them anyway, so perhaps plyometric training won’t be any more damaging than what they’re doing already. On the other hand, plyometric programs are usually (relatively) high volume, so the repetition might be really dangerous. This is why I think supervision is important.
3) Many dancers have muscles imbalances due to the nature of their art. Some can be corrected to an extent to help them perform better, and some are a necessary evil.
For example, many dancers are hamstring or lower back dominant, and don’t use their glutes. Glutes can be trained, and this training will help you perform better and not get hurt. Dancers also tend to have incredibly tight ilipsoas and quads, which can pull on the spine, in a bad way, and cause back and hip injuries if they are not first taught how to work with these issues.
But, due to the nature of dance you WILL need to have some weird imbalances, especially if you need turnout. That’s ok. But you have to realize that because you are functionally asymetrical for your art, you are at risk of getting hurt.
Agreed, and that’s exactly why I don’t want to be more specific about recommendations 🙂
Is it smart to do power training with your hamstrings and lower back as the prime movers? Have you had a lower back or hamstring injury? You tell me…
4) The non-specific joint angle when performing plyo exercises might not be beneficial for dancers, could cause injury, and not improve performance. This concern is especially for dance styles that require the use of turnout.
Donna Krasnow (dance professor at York University, Ph. D in dance science, all around smart lady) told me some interesting things when I asked her about plyometrics last summer in THIS INTERVIEW. Here’s a quick recap of what Donna told me when I asked her if dancers should do plyometrics and Olympic lifting:
“Yes. If the dancer has a need for it.”
She explained to me that many dancers are naturally good jumpers and it would not be a productive use of their time to work on something they are already good at. Hip drive power does help with vertical jump height, which is of importance to dancers, but if they don’t need much extra help in that regard, it is not necessary.
She states that the training must be specific to dancing. For this very reason, she is not in favour of ballet dancers doing much plyometric training. Her experience is that it will not transfer over to a dance setting as one would like it to, for the feet are in a parallel position which is not very helpful for dancers who work in turn-out.
I asked about doing plyometric work in a turned out position, and we both agreed that it would probably not be safe for the knees.
Olympic lifting could however be quite beneficial for dancers needing help with their jumps.
And here’s what Joel said:
In my opinion, plyometric exercises that don’t involve turnout are preferred because with greater technique demands comes the problem of poor exercise performance due to physical limitations. If plyometrics are performed for general power, I don’t think it’s necessary to incorporate dance technique into the program as well. From my perspective, dancers (and other athletes) should emphasize technique during dance- or sport-specific training and use more basic movements during strength and conditioning. Squats, for example, might be used to develop lower body strength, but the actual movement is quite different from anything dancers actually do in class or performance.
Very interesting indeed. But again, this is more of a concern for dance styles that use turnout- like ballet, but often in modern, jazz and contemporary as well.
Ok, let’s wrap this up, because concision was never my strong suit. Yes, concision IS a word.
It is my view that plyometric training for dancers COULD be a good idea, but rather than ask how, I think we need to ask if and when to do it, and more research clearly needs to be done.
Joel’s final thoughts:
I think the individual abilities, physical limitations, fitness, and current training practices of dancers make it somewhat dangerous to try to give more detailed guidance about things like plyometrics in an overview article. I mentioned in the article that it’s important to be evaluated by someone who understands the nature of plyometric training and how to program effectively for people with different backgrounds. I really believe that, for the most part, people should avoid this type of training unless they are supervised.
My short answer to all of this is, yeah, I think dancers can benefit from plyometrics if they do basic movements with the goal of developing power. If they have physical limitations, it’s particularly important to do plyometric movements that require very little technique. Off season is probably the best time, but for dancers who perform year round, there are just too many variables involved in developing a program to make more detailed recommendations.
Ok. So. Conclusions?
I guess we can both agree that the answer will probably always be, “it depends”. Which is extremely dissatisfying. Such is life…
Personally, I always err on the side of caution (having been overtrained and injured before), and I would be very reluctant to get a dancer to do things like box/depth jumps, unless I had a really good feeling about it. I often act based on feeling. It’s usually a good system.
It is unfortunate that there’s just not a whole lot of research done on training dancers. When they first come to me, the state of most of my dancers are bordering on post-rehab, not high performance, and I don’t usually even consider plyometrics for them.
So. What do YOU think? I know Joel and I would love to hear your thoughts. With our eyes… So leave a comment below!
Today I have an awesome guest post from Joel Minden (www.joelminden.com), who is a strength and conditioning specialist, who also happens to be a ballroom dancer, and has a Ph.D in psychology. So, yeah. He’s pretty smart.
Joel and I have been talking about dance training things lately, and I asked him if he’d be so kind as to write something about plyometric training for dancers. My main question being: Should dancers even do plyometric training? I have my own opinions, and as it turned out, Joel and I ended up getting into a pretty good discussion about it.
And for those of you who don’t know what plyometric training is, don’t worry, Joel does a really awesome job of explaining it. In a nutshell, it’s form of training to get more power for things like jumps, etc. but it can also be pretty taxing on the body.
Plyometric training can help athletes get to the next level, especially if they participate in a sport that has a need for high jumps, or explosiveness (like dancing sometimes does). But is it an appropriate method of training for dancers? If so, what are some things to consider? How can it benefit dancers?
Here’s Joel’s take on plyometric training for dancers.
Plyometrics for Dancers
Dancing at the highest level requires excellence in numerous domains, including posture, alignment, balance, extension, agility, strength, and power. Some of these abilities are developed almost exclusively through dance-specific training; others can improve through a combination of technical training and an adjunct conditioning program.
Power is one ability that may be improved through systematic training outside the dance studio. Power can loosely be defined as a combination of strength and speed. When conditioning programs are used by dancers and other athletes, strength is typically developed through resistance training and speed is typically developed through sprinting. The limitation of both approaches for dancers is that isolated strength and speed are generally much less relevant than power to dance performance. For dancers, the development of power is particularly important for dynamic jumping both vertically and horizontally.
How is Power Developed?
Improvements in athletic power can be achieved through plyometric exercises. Example exercises include jumping drills for the lower body and explosive (e.g., clapping) push-ups for the upper body. For dancers looking to improve the height and distance of jumps or control the rate of acceleration and deceleration in jumps, the addition of plyometrics to a training program appears to be ideal.
Three Phases of Plyometric Exercises
Plyometric exercises have three phases. The first phase is eccentric. Eccentric refers to the contraction of a lengthened or stretched muscle. For example, when a dancer lands after jumping, the knees and ankles bend and the muscles of the calves and quadriceps contract while lengthening to absorb the impact of the landing and prepare for the next explosive jump.
If you didn’t rely on this eccentric muscular contraction, the joints would collapse rapidly upon landing and the subsequent jump would be much less dynamic. The eccentric contraction in this case is similar to the effect of pulling on a resistance band; the resistance felt as the band is lengthened is similar to the resistance created by the contracting muscle as it lengthens.
After the muscle and tendon stretch at the end of the eccentric phase (e.g., the end of the lowering phase of plié), the second phase of plyometrics occurs. This phase is amortization, or the transition from the eccentric phase to the next jump. The amortization phase is quite brief. If the amortization period is extended, the subsequent jump becomes less powerful. Imagine pausing for several seconds in plié before jumping; the jump that follows will not travel as much as it would if the jump occurs immediately after the muscle and tendon stretch to capacity.
The final phase of a plyometric exercise is concentric. This is where the muscle contracts as it shortens. In the explosive phase of jumping, the calf muscles and quadriceps shorten and contract as the dancer leaves the ground and travels rapidly through the air.
How Does Plyometric Training Work?
It’s believed that the greatest improvements in power from plyometric training occur when the amortization phase is emphasized. This means that the period between the eccentric and concentric
Phases should be as brief as possible. Using the depth jump as an example, after jumping from the box platform to the ground, explode up immediately after the descent (bend in knees and ankles) has been completed.
Do Dancers Benefit From Plyometrics?
Plyometrics may be avoided by some because of a belief that dance ability improves primarily as a result of dance training, and that other activities merely take time away from working toward improvements in technique.
In most sports, athletic performance is directly related to markers of fitness, such as strength, power, or endurance. In contrast, dancers’ goals are typically related to achieving aesthetic competence, and activities that appear to be unrelated may be avoided. If one accepts that aesthetic competence should be the ultimate goal for dancers, the next step is to determine the method for achieving this. It is reasonable to assume that aesthetic competence depends on fitness to some extent, but which aspects of fitness are important and how much do they contribute to dance ability?
In a study of university and professional contemporary dancers, Angioi et al. (2009) examined the relation of various dimensions of fitness to aesthetic competence. Fitness parameters included body fat %, muscular power and endurance, aerobic capacity, and joint mobility. The aesthetic competence measure was developed by directors of dance companies and the elements included controlled landing from jumps and turns, controlled lifting and lowering of limbs, controlled shifting of body weight, core strength, alignment, posture, extension of limbs, elevation and turning technique, timing and rhythm, and performance expressiveness.
Participants were 17 dancers who completed a series of physical fitness tests. None had any involvement in supplementary fitness activities for at least 3 months prior. The physical fitness indicators were body composition (body fat %), lower body muscular power (jump height), upper body muscular endurance (push-ups), central body muscular endurance (planks), joint mobility and muscular flexibility (active and passive ROM in the hip) and aerobic capacity.
Three hours later, dancers performed a 60-second sequence designed for this study. Dancers’ aesthetic competence was evaluated by directors of professional dance companies. The two significant predictors of aesthetic competence were push-ups and jumping ability (on the right and left legs). The data indicated that about 30% of the variance in aesthetic competence could be accounted for by jumping ability.
These data indicate that fitness is particularly important to movement quality in dancers. Lower body muscular power was one of two strong predictors of aesthetic competence. It is therefore reasonable to conclude that plyometrics training can benefit dancers looking to improve performance quality.
Plyometric training can be quite demanding. It is not recommended to perform these exercises unless certain strength and mobility conditions can be met. An assessment by a qualified strength and conditioning professional is strongly encouraged before programming begins.
Note from Monika: Joel and I would like to emphasize that randomly adding a DIY plyometric training program to your dance training is probably not a great idea. We are just throwing hypothetical ideas around, is all.
As with resistance training, adequate rest between bouts of plyometrics training is important. To improve jumping ability, targeted plyometric exercises should be performed approximately one or two days a week. The recommended frequency of plyometric training will depend on a number of variables: performance season vs. off-season; age, fitness, and ability of the dancer; and intensity and duration of current dance training. The amount of rest between repetitions and sets will depend on the intensity of training. The total number of repetitions in each workout will typically be between 40 and 120. Plyometric workouts are typically performed for 30 minutes or less.
Both single and double leg exercises are recommended. Jumping in place, multiple jumps, bounds (e.g., explosive skipping), and box jumps are examples of exercises that can benefit dancers.
And in case any of you are wondering why the title of this article has “part 1” in it, it’s because IT’S NOT DONE YET! I had a little bit more to add to this discussion. Part 2 coming… Soon.
What do you think about dancers doing plyometric training? Add your 2 cents in the comments below. Oh wait- We don’t have pennies in Canada anymore. So I guess thoughts are free now. And that’s probably a good thing for all of us.
Joel Minden, Ph.D., CSCS, is a clinical psychologist, certified strength and conditioning specialist, and sports nutrition coach. In addition to teaching psychology and kinesiology at California State University, Chico, Joel provides consulting services to athletes and he is a competitive ballroom dancer. His website is www.joelminden.com.
Angioi, M., Metsios, G. S., Twitchett, E., Koutedakis, Y., & Wyon, M. (2009). Association between selected physical fitness parameters and aesthetic competence in contemporary dancers. Journal of Dance Medicine and Science, 13(4), 115-123.
Baechle, T., & Earle, R. (2008). Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning, Third Edition. National Strength and Conditioning Association. Human Kinetics.