The other day I had a dream that someone told me deadlifting was bad for your back, and that I shouldn’t do them.
I woke up angry.
On another occasion (this time in real life) a friend of mine, who has some lower back and sciatic pain issues, overheard me talking with one of my clients (also has back pain flare-ups from time to time), about our goals for her deadlift- aka, lift more. He then told me that I shouldn’t let someone with chronic back pain deadlift because “deadlifting pinches a nerve in your back”…
I wanted to say so much, but the non-confrontational being that I am, I just said with a huge smile “not if you’re doing them right”, and walked away before we got into an argument.
No- Deadlifting does not pinch a nerve in your back. Pinching a nerve, by the way, is a garbage term used to describe many types of pain that don’t even involve a nerve being “pinched”.
Now THAT’S a nerve pinch…
No- deadlifting is not bad for your back. Rather, deadlifting is an excellent exercise to teach you how to NOT hurt your back, and make it less likely that, if you do have chronic back pain, like I do, it’ll flare up.
So, be it resolved that dancers are notorious for injuring their backs, I would like to argue FOR the case that dancers should indeed deadlift. When they are ready for it.
Nothing gets me stoked quite like deadlifts do. Is my first client of the day scheduled to deadlift? Then I’m off to the start of an awesome day. Do I get to teach someone their first ever deadlift today? You bet I’m excited. It’s impossible to be around deadlifts without getting a buzz.
I just did some today. And I feel awesome!
While there will always be those who think that deadlifts will hurt their backs and knees, making them not worth the risk, I think they’re wrong. Well, in some cases, they’re right- There are some people who I’m sure it would be a good idea not to deadlift. At least initially. But seeing as everybody picks things up, puts them back down (eventually), and sits on the toilet, it’s a good idea to learn to hinge from your hips (aka- deadlift).
Some good reasons for dancers to deadlift:
1) Deadlifting teaches you to use your glutes as the prime mover, over the back. A common imbalance in dancers, is to overuse their lower back muscles (from the constant demand to be in lumbar hyperextension) rather than use their glutes. It’s also pretty common for people to not bend from the hips, but to bend from the spine, putting all the load on the lower back.
Story from the gym today, these two dudes were doing multiple sets of 50 sit ups. Dude 1 says, “Man I can really feel the burn in my lower back!”. Dude 2 agrees enthusiastically that this is awesome. They proceed to do at least 5 more sets, while I foam roll and stretch, observing in close proximity, shaking my head and face-palming internally. Again- I could have said something, but I choose to avoid
rationalizing with lost causes unnecessary confrontations like this. Besides, it was Sunday- My only day I don’t HAVE to talk about gym stuff and biomechanics if I don’t want to.
So anyway, back to this important point- The deadlift teaches you to use your glutes as the prime mover, with the hamstrings and lower back as secondary. The glutes are one of the strongest muscles in the body, but also one of the most commonly weak ones. Deadlift and your glutes will get strong, helping with a lot of things from injury prevention, to alignment, to technical performance of dance moves, etc.
Another common thing that dancers do that kind of screws things up for them, is that they use their glutes (glute max, which also externally rotates the hip) to turnout, instead of using them to jump, balance, and other things involving hip extension. Deadlifting, and glute strengthening in general, can help you learn to use the part of the glute max which extends the hip, not just rotates it. Addressing this can aslo help you to prevent overuse injuries to the hamstrings and lower back and hips. Yay!
2) Deadlifts make your whole body strong. Not just your glutes. If you like multi-tasking, then you’ll love deadlifting.
Most strength coaches would agree that the deadlift is paramount to developing full-body strength. I don’t think there’s a single muscle that you don’t need to have engaged to do a deadlift properly. Glutes, abs, back, legs, arms… Sometimes even the arches of my feet are sore after deadlift days, because my foot posture is excellent.
Deadlifts teach you to transmit force from the floor, through your whole body- Everything, from your feet to your hands, has to work to get the bar up, making it one of the most efficient exercises to build strength.
And the German blood in me really, really digs efficiency.
3) Deadlifts build upper back strength. Continuing on the same lines as the above point, if you aren’t bracing your upper back as you lift the bar (or other heavy object of your choosing), then you will probably hurt your back. Just one of the reasons deadlifting gets a bad rep. By engaging the muscles of your upper back (lats and friends), you strengthen the crap out of them.
I think something that sets one dancer apart from another is their ability to dance from their backs. If a dancer is just flapping her arms and legs around, it doesn’t look quite right. But when you can initiate the movement from your back- magic happens.
Fun fact: Those who don’t strength train can only use about 70% of their available motor units, so it’s really amazing the difference you will see in your dancing in just 4 weeks of strength training, during which time increase in strength is due to the fact that now you are actually using more motor units.
4) Deadlifting strengthens your core and neutral spine position. Again, to deadlift properly, and not hurt your back, you need to have a stiff core in a neutral position. Considering most dancers don’t focus much of their time on being in neutral spine, it’s good for them to practice it once in a while. By deadlifting.
5) Deadlifting strengthens your grip. Dancers of many styles will benefit from improved grip strength. If you ever need to lift somebody, hold onto somebody, or climb something (I’m looking at you silks and circus peeps), then you’ll probably need a certain degree of grip strength.
Grip and rotator cuff strength are correlated, making grip strength an important factor for injury prevention to the shoulder. There is also evidence that weak grip can be associated with pain in the elbow, shoulder and other stuff you might not think it would be linked to. The body is just kinda crazy like that.
Deadlifting is also proven to make your handshake way more intimidating. It will help you impress at your next audition or interview.
7) Deadlifting improves your confidence. You’d be surprised at how many dancers actually tell me how little confidence they have in themselves. Part of performing is knowing how to fake confidence I guess.
But tell me, how could you NOT be empowered having the ability lifting something that weighs your own bodyweight and then some? One of my key philosophies, that the DTP thrives on, is that time spent training in the gym should be used to create positive memories of success, to boost confidence, and make the trainee feel good about what they’ve accomplished in each session.
By working on improving strength, and the dancer seeing the numbers of her/his lifts going up, it gives them something positive and tangible to focus on. Rather than dwelling on the negative aspects of their dancing, or what they need to improve on, they get instant gratification, a flood of adrenaline, and the sense of accomplishment associated with a successful lift.
I’ve seen dancers blossom as people as they see themselves becoming stronger, and stronger. They look forward to deadlift day, because it is another chance to improve themselves as people, not just as dancers.
The confidence a dancer can build through mastering their bodies, and learning the mechanics of lifting heavy is something I think will help them immensely when they are performing, and in daily class. A stronger, more confident, more empowered person is a better dancer than a weak, insecure and tentative person, would you not say?
8 ) Deadlifting has real-world, functional applications. My dancers are surprisingly strong, and like to show it off at their jobs:
This dancer (weighs, like, 115 pounds MAX) works as a server at a popular restuarant, and told me this story: “The other day, we had to move the big crates of cutlery from the floor onto the counter, and no one else wanted to lift them up cause they weigh a ton, not even the dudes. But it was no problem for me, I was just like, ‘I’ll deadlift it up’.”
This dancer works at a popular hardware/houseware store and told me this one: “At work this week, I helped a man lift an apppliance he bought into his car. He looked concerned and went to help me as I [dead]lifted it up into his trunk, but then he was like, ‘Oh… you’re really strong, you didn’t even need my help’. No big deal”.
High. Freakin’. Five. These ladies are killing it in life, at the gym, and on the dance floor.
Thank you deadlifts. Thank you for improving the quality of my life in more ways than I could possibly imagine.
A few days ago I had an interesting conversation with a client of mine about body awareness. Specifically, on the importance of listening to your body when it tells you you’re in pain.
Pain exists for a reason- To guide you. To teach you. To give you some very important information. Your nerve endings can’t talk so they have to resort to being annoying to get your attention. Annoying to the point of being total jerks.
Communicating with jerks is a good skill to develop, and in much the same way, having good communication with your body is important. Body awareness- the ability to interpret what your body is telling you.
It’s your choice, and your responsibility, to listen to your body’s signals, and interpret their meaning. I highly recommend you do.
Like the one time I tried hot yoga and felt like vomiting and passing out simultaneously. The (only moderately fanatical) teacher, reassured me that this was just my body “detoxing” and that I should at all costs NOT leave the room before the 90 minutes was up. I’m all for not being full of toxins, but something tells me the teacher wouldn’t have appreciated me “detoxing” all over the mat. Nor would the sweaty gentleman next to me. And so, much to the instructor’s chagrin, I chose to listen to my body, which was telling me to get the hell out of there.
Detox my ass. That was horrible. I will never hot yoga again.
Is your body being a jerk?
Before you take pain killers, lather up with tiger palm, and ignore these signals, maybe consider changing the way you treat your body.
Imagine you have a pot of water boiling on the stove you want to cool down to drinking temperature, so you keep adding ice-cubes to it in hopes that will cool it down. But this is a silly, ineffective attempt- If we want the water to be a comfortable drinking temperature, you have to take the fire out from under the pot.
I see all too many people masking their pain so they can ignore it. They’re just putting ice-cubes in their pots. You can only put in so many until you run out of ice, or the pot overflows.
But, like, whatever. You can do whatever you want to do. Speaking for myself, however, when my body sends me signals of impending doom, I know better than to ignore them.
So anyway, onward to today’s real topic of discussion.
So you have tight hamstrings, do you?
Do you relate to any of the following? :
“My hamstrings are soo tight, I need to stretch them more”
*while sitting in splits* “I wish I had more flexible hamstrings”
“POP” (sound of hamstring tearing).
I’ve only been witness to one acute hamstring injury (my own) and yes, there was an unsettling popping sound. It was… unpleasant.
I would love it if you could use the information prevent such unpleasant muscle strains and treat your hammies with the respect they deserve- You should probably STOP stretching your hamstrings so much and work on getting them a bit stiffer.
The following article is for dancers who are already at a pretty advanced level in their training. Advanced meaning in terms of years they’ve been dancing, technical skill level , or a combination of the two. This could include university, competitive and professional dancers, and aspiring younger recreational dancers who excel among their peers. Also to any other dancer who meets the following criteria:
- Can already do the splits in all directions, especially if you can do over-splits
- Can actively lift the leg up to, or past 90 degrees
- Dances 3-4+ times per week for at least an hour
- Competes/performs regularly several times per year
- You’re hypermobile:
This could also apply to gymnasts, firgure skaters, circus peeps, etc.
This one’s for you guys, to keep you safe. You’re welcome.
You can stop the excessive hamstring stretching!
Just to avoid confusing, I’m definitely not saying that no dancer, ever, needs to stretch their hamstrings, because initially, you will. There are many dancers who benefit from stretching their hamstrings if they lack flexibility.
The hamstrings act to extend the hip, flex the knee, and also help to rotate the leg when the knee is flexed. Biceps femoris, the most lateral of the 3 hamstrings, is most often the hamstring injured, since it’s the only one what also laterally rotates the leg. Ohh turnout… The hamstrings are also important for dancers because of the deccelerative action they perform-The eccentric control necessary for landings from jumps, and for speed and agility.
The misconception is that because your hamstrings “feel stiff”, or “tight”, they should be stretched more. But just because a muscle feels stiff, in your specific case, this might actually be an indicator of the opposite- A need for more stiffness. An actual stiff muscle, by it’s true definition does not feel sore and tight, but feels kind of springy.
In reality, this hamstring “tightness” is the feeling of a muscle locked long that you are over-recruiting. A weak, over-stretched, over-worked muscle tightening reflexively to protect itself from tearing.
Think about this: you’re obsessed with stretching your hammies, and then you make them perform strenuous, repetitive work, at a high volume while they’re locked in an eccentric (elongated) contraction. Not a super strong place to be.
So if the hamstring is locked in a stretched out position, and you’re jumping around all day kicking your legs over your head, AND THEN stretching them even more while you’re cold, does it really surprise you that they tend to get cranky and damage easily?
The good news is, knowing this, you can easily prevent these sorts of overuse injuries. Here’s how:
1) Evaluate your need to stretch your hamstrings. They need to be flexible, but they also need to be strong. Act responsibly. If you’re already flexible and/or hypermobile, your needs are different than your friends’. I very rarely do any hamstring stretching with my ballet dancers. There are more productive things we can do. But if you do indeed need more flexibility, spend some time stretching them- Ideally after your day of dancing is complete, or as a separate session on a non-dance day.
Check out THIS RESOURCE on the Bowen Works website, titled “Managing Joint Hypermobility- A Guide for Dance Teachers”. Some solid info on training hypermobile dancers. This is their take on stretching (but check out complete article when you have a chance. Important stuff for teachers, parents, and dancers to know):
Hypermobile dancers like to stretch. They find it easy and it feels good, but stretching for long periods into the end of range may lead to instability and even injury. Stability and strength should be developed as a priority. However, even in hypermobile dancers there will be areas of restriction and tightness and it is good to stretch these, whilst avoiding stretching areas where there is already excessive mobility.
Many hypermobile people are naturally attracted to dance because of their additional flexibility. However, strength and fine control are essential components to match increased flexibility and end of range movement. Additional coaching, conditioning and physiotherapy exercises can be useful to gain strength and reinforce movement patterns.
2) Strengthen your glutes and hamstrings. Add some functional stiffness. Both the hamstrings and the glutes extend the hip, but often we dancers use our glutes (especially the maximus) to turnout, and so the hamstrings (especially the lateral one) do all the work. Silly. And risky.
Here are some exercises to begin with, and eventually progress to:
Prone hip extension. Focus on pushing your hips into the floor and try to not allow the lower back to dip down towards the floor.
Hip bridge with foam roller. Press through the floor with your heels and imagine you are getting a stretch for your hip flexors. Do not thrust up with your spine. Squeeze the crap out of the foam roller.
Pull throughs. A very exciting exercise to do in a busy gym.
Single leg stiff legged deadlift. Ignore how shaky mine are.
And one my favourite exercise of all time, le barbell deadlift. Start with a kettlebell or dumbbell, and progress to a barbell if you’re ready to handle heavier loads (ie no injuries, you’re taught proper form, etc).
That was a personal best for me from a little while ago. I don’t dance much anymore so I decided to work on a strength goal (I don’t recommend lifting THIS heavy if you’re dancing seriously). I accidentally counted the plates wrong, which kind of screwed the whole workout flow up. I can’t count. I avoid math if at all possible. It makes for surprising workouts sometimes.
So to conclude, I urge you to consider a more conservative approach to hamstring stretching (an “as needed” approach), and develop strength in your glutes, and hamstrings. A simple strategy that will go a long way in helping to prevent injury, and improving things like jumps, alignment, and over-all level of pain you’re in on the daily.
Have you had a hamstring injury? I’d love to hear your experiences. Leave a comment below.
I get at least a few emails a month asking how to improve turnout. It’s kind of a big deal. Especially if you do ballet.
I know that not all readers of this blog are ballet/contemporary dancers, but every dance form relies on turnout to a certain extent.
I’ve already written a rather lengthy article about turnout HERE, so I recommend you read that too when you’re done with this one. But unlike my first turnout article, what I have to say today has a different tone.
Disclaimer- This will not be a “how to” guide for increasing turnout. I’m not going to give you exercises and stretches that will help your turnout, nor will I claim that it’s even possible to increase your turnout beyond a certain extent.
So, umm, what does that leave to talk about? Attitude.
Not that kind of attitude… Bad joke. I know.
Rather, after having read this, I want you to have a full understanding of why turnout is so hard to change, and why you should focus instead on having a more realistic attitude about your turnout capabilities. And maybe I’ll throw in a few fun anatomy words. Like gastrocnemius. By far the best muscle name of all time.
Ok let’s get started.
What is turnout?
First, I want you to remember that turnout is not the same things as hip external rotation. Turnout is the sum of rotation that occurs at the hip, knee and ankle. Obviously it’s safer to get the majority of your turnout range of motion from the hip, because it’s the most mobile of the three joints, and was designed to rotate in it’s socket.
The tibia can rotate internally and externally, with the range of motion varying from 16 to 60 degrees between individuals.
The foot, too, has a certain degree of external rotation, and it also glides, or tilts side to side into pronation and supination (though it’s a lot more complex that that, in real life), To get more turnout we often see dancers who roll in the foot (pronate). This is most commonly seen in 5th position with the feet. Is not good. Encourage dancers to use a more neutral foot alignment.
Relax. You are not Svetlana.
Many dancers, dance teachers and parents, don’t understand that not everyone is able to get to 90 degrees of “perfect” turnout. Or even 80, or 50 degrees.
Everyone’s body is different. We all have unique variations. I definitely don’t have perfect turnout, and it was actually a relief when I learned that there wasn’t much I could do about it.
In anatomy class, my first year at Ryerson, is when I learned for the first time from our prof that were anatomical factors affecting turnout that we have no control over. It really took the pressure off, after having teachers tell me my whole life that I needed better turnout. This new understanding of my body was a relief, and so I encourage dance teachers to let their students know too, so they don’t stress themselves out.
We can’t all have turnout like Svetlana, nor should we. What a boring world that would be.
The main problems with this whole “I need more turnout” thing:
- If bone is hitting bone, you can’t turnout farther than that. Get over it. Trying to grind bone against bone also feels really awful. Don’t make your labrum hate you (how’s that for a fun anatomy word?)
- For you young, aspiring professional ballerinas (and men too)- if you are anteverted (click the link to read more about that), then it probably wasn’t meant to be. 90 degree turnout won’t be possible for you. Get over it. You can still dance, just maybe not professional ballet (which isn’t as glamorous as you might think).
- Forcing your turnout past it’s natural point in dance class won’t help to improve it. You’ll probably just screw up your knees and have to stop dancing. It also doesn’t look very nice. But that’s subjective…
- You know that “clam” exercise that you do to strengthen your “turnout muscles”? They’re probably not doing anything. Your hip external rotators are likely to be chronically tight and even causing pelvic dysfunction that should be addressed before you try to develop more strength in them.
- Don’t forget about the internal rotators- The loss of hip internal rotation is indicative of potential pelvic dysfunction which could lead to injury and stability issues, and should be addressed in a training program (more on that later on in this post though…)
I’ve also noticed some interesting things in dancer hips that are good to know about before you start trying to get more turnout (bear in mind I work mostly with university level dancers who train primarily in ballet, modern and jazz).
1) Overall loss of internal rotation range of motion in both hips. In regular populations, loss of internal rotation is associated with low back pain, and SI joint dysfunction… Hmm. Internal rotation is actually important. Read more about that HERE on Mike Reinhold’s site. Seriously. It’s a good read with some interesting case studies correlating loss of hip rotation (on one and/or both sides) with low back pain and SI joint dysfunction.
2) More hip external rotation on the RIGHT, and subsequently, more hip internal rotation on the LEFT. I’ve even seen the opposite, which seems to be related to what age the dancer started their studies. Any imbalance side to side can be a risk factor for injury, so maybe you should try to sort that out before trying to add more external rotation.
3) Inability to actively achieve their passive range of motion in hip rotation. Meaning that if I took your leg and manually moved you to your end range of motion in external rotation, and then asked you to try to get to the same place using your own strength, it probably wouldn’t add up to the same amount. In theory, you should be able to get the same active and passive ROM, so maybe you should work on that before trying to get more turnout.
4) Inhibition of the abdominals and glutes. This means they don’t work as hard as they need to, causing other muscles (like the hip external rotators) to compensate to stabilize and align your body. This makes getting more turnout hard, and even risky.
The good news is that those 4 things are mostly trainable, meaning you can improve them with training. Yay!
But your hips don’t lie. And more importantly, your bones don’t lie.
You can’t change your bones
I won’t go into excruciating detail, because I’ve already done that in another article, but things like angle of femoral anteversion, orientation of the hip socket, width and length of femoral shaft, and anterior pelvic ligament laxity will affect how much turnout you can get. And there’s no way to train these things.
For example, I just assessed a dancer who looks a little anteverted. I can’t claim that for sure without an expert second opinion, but you can sort of see it through palpation. Anteversion means the head of her femur faces a little more to the front, and that kind of sucks if you want 90 degree turnout. In her case, forcing it to go farther will only cause her hip pain (which she is already experiencing).
To quote Bill Hartman from an article of his on femoral anteversion
Because this [anteversion] is a structural adaptation, the rotation is not something that will change with typical hip rotation mobility exercises and attempting to do so will only result in injury. If you should have an athlete with excessive hip internal rotation, developing a stronger core and glutes is essential.
So please understand that there are a lot of things about turnout that you don’t have power over, and in some cases it can be dangerous to try to get more turnout without a full understanding of what’s happening in your body.
I guess the underlying theme of this post is it might be time let it go. Change your mindset. Stop stressing out about turnout.
Dancers- Explain your anatomical limitations to your teachers if and when you feel too much pressure from them.
Dance teachers- Understand these limitations, educate your dancers, and encourage them to do the best with what they’ve got.
Here’s my personal opinion on training turnout- There are other things more important and more productive to train. Additional training time is better spent on things like strength development, that are proven to be effective and safe.
Rather than focusing on turnout, focus first on alignment.
We know that we can improve alignment through soft tissue release, exercise, and postural awareness. We know we can train the the core to become stronger and develop better control. But we don’t know if it’s possible to change your turnout beyond your genetic bony structure. It’s probably not. Not safely anyway.
Training turnout can be potentially risky, and I think many experts agree that a safer thing to do would be to work only with functional turnout (from hips, without twisting the knees and ankles).
Focus on what you can control (functional turnout, core strength, alignment), and don’t stress about what you can’t. It’s not the turnout that makes one dancer better than another. Although it is a nice bonus.
An important note on core strength
Remember that if you do decide to focus on training your turnout, you should first develop core strength, and in particular, a good understanding of what neutral spine is for you. Again, alignment is one of the most important thing that you can actually improve.
Many dancers (and most people, in general) have weakness and inhibition of their abdominals, glutes and other stabillizers of the spine and pelvis, with tons of compensation strategies to make up for this weakness. They might also have no idea where neutral is. Couple those trends with our obsession with forcing turnout, and you’ve got a recipe for pain.
Who and when should you train for more turnout?
In my opinion, the only time you should focus directly on improving turnout is if your active range of motion is less than you can get passively. Note you should also work on developing more hip internal rotation for injury prevention, as I mentioned earlier. But that’s a post for another time.
As a strength and conditioning specialist, I do not claim to be an expert on improving turnout. However, my dancers, after becoming stronger, and better aligned, reap the benefits of improved body awareness, and are able to work better with their functional turnout, which I think is more important than focusing on something they might never be able to attain (90 degree turnout).
For more info on turnout, check out these two great resources on the IADMS website:
Hip Anatomy and Factors Influencing Turnout
Turnout for Dancers: Supplemental Training
I’d love to hear about your turnout training philosophies. Have you had success improving yours? What do you do to improve your turnout? Leave a comment and let me know.