For the purpose of keeping this blog post very simple, today’s question: Should dancers lift weights?
My answer: Yes.
Specifically, should dancers deadlift?
Smart dancers everywhere are already picking up heavy things for their art.
Look, here’s Chelsy Meiss of the National Ballet of Canada thrusting some bar.
Her deadlift technique leaves a bit to be desired, but she’s actually lifting something heavier than a handbag. Rock on!
I love deadlifts. I think it feels good to lift heavy things, and I think everyone should try getting strong at least once to see if they like it, too. You might accidentally become empowered. And you might accidentally start dancing better.
It happened to me!
When I started lifting, I’ll admit it was purely for aesthetic purposes. I had no deeper motive like that the deadlift was a movement that could improve my athleticism, help prevent injuries, and improve elements of my dance technique.
It was pure vanity.
When I started lifting, my technique was pretty poor. I was also on the brink of burn-out and was not following an appropriate training program to support my dancing, yet somehow my dancing still improved. Teachers noticed. That’s the beauty of strength.
Had my technique been optimal, I probably could have avoided a hamstring injury rather than reinforcing some compensation patterns that ultimately led to said injury.
To illustrate, the video below is my personal best deadlift (taken after the hammie injury). If you watch carefully you can see that my left foot is supinating off the floor, and so I was probably doing this lift without my left glute.
If I’m lifting without my left glute, I was probably dancing without a left glute before, and so it’s no surprise that I injured my left hamstring.
But I’m saying this because my n=1 experience- deadlifts helping me feel stronger dancing- made me want to learn more. I knew that if a dancer got proper coaching , they could reap the benefits of improved dancing, and not get injured like I did.
And so here I am today, telling you to try this fantastic lift that I feel to be an essential part of a dancer’s movement education.
Here’s some reasons why dancers should deadlift:
1. At first, strength can be developed lying on the ground, but then it can’t.
This is my problem with many of the floor-based exercise programs, like Ballet Beautiful, mat pilates, and Tracy Anderson’s tripe.
With floor-based bodyweight exercise you can quickly reach a point of diminishing, and then zero returns. The stimulus becomes quite comfortable, and you cease to improve.
Or make gainz.
The science of motor learning tells us that to make changes we must work at the edge of our abilities. We have to fail a little. Things have to be hard, and when they get too easy we stop learning.
Strength is a learned behaviour requiring increasingly challenging stimulus. Standing up off the floor and adding external load is one way of doing that. Because if you read this blog you probably care about strength.
Or, if your goal is just to move your arms and legs around and you don’t care about strength so much, try doing what Tracy Anderson tells you.
Floor based stuff like yoga is great. I love yoga and rolling on the floor. But if you reach a point where it no longer becomes a challenge, then it’s time to stand up and lift, baby.
2. Deadlifts can help prevent back injuries.
If you’re doing them proper, deadlifts are a great tool to teach dancers to flex and extend at the hip rather than the spine. Learning to load the hips and not the spine is smart if you want to prevent back injuries.
While I recognize that lumbar flexion isn’t bad, it sure can be if you choose to do it over and over and over. Just think of the number of flexion cycles you put your spine through in a dance class. A lovely aesthetic, but not necessarily one that will feel good after 10 000 reps.
A while ago, a reader/dancer/strength coach messaged me on Facebook saying this:
I started seeing an LMT for nasty knots in my quads in addition to the chiropractor that is the head of the practice. They came HIGHLY recommend by the head of our dance division and have helped everyone from college level dancers, world record setting lifters, to your typical elderly cute mom and pop. Everyone in their office, including the PT vehemently opposed doing deadlifts saying that they were an unnecessary risk to build strength, muscle, etc. Are they just being overly conservative? I know you love deadlifts, and for good reason because it is efficient and effective, but the combined concern of these folk have me confused….
So frustrating when your recommended network of health care practitioners don’t know the difference between an unsafe exercise, and doing a good exercise unsafely.
It’ s just a hip hinge. Adding weight improves your work capacity to do hip hinges and do ’em right without popping a disk.
Every once in a while I also get people telling me not to deadlift because it will hurt my back. Phooey. Deadlifts teach me how not to hurt my back.
A hip hinge requires your core to be stabilizing while you hips take the load. That doesn’t sound so bad to me.
Certainly not every dancer is ready to pick up a bar and lift heavy, but at the very least practicing a bodyweight deadlift (or hip hinge) is an essential part of low back rehab and prevention.
3. Deadlifts builds confidence and foster a growth mindset.
I saw this diagram on a friend’s Facebook feed the other day.
That crippling self doubt thing- It’s real. We all feel it. But after a solid deadlift sesh it’s hard to let anything bring you down.
The process of building physical strength, and getting better and stronger each time is so good for dancers who need that confidence boost, regardless of how composed they seem on the outside. And the focus on it being a process is an important mindset to learn and practice.
A colleague of mine asked me what are the most important things that I wish I could teach dancers, and my top two things were: The importance of learning to stop giving so much of a damn and of getting stronger.
Deadilfts can help with both.
4. Deadlifts help develop grip and rotator cuff strength.
Deadlifts require grip strength, and grip strength is correlated to rotator cuff strength, and rotator cuff strength is correlated to not dislocating your shoulders.
Through a process called irradiation, when you activate your grip like you’re trying to crush something, it sends a signal to your rotator cuff to activate. It’s cool stuff, and can explain why if your grip is poor, you might one day have cranky shoulders if you don’t already.
But aside from shoulder health, why is grip and rotator cuff strength important for dance? So many skills require a firm grip and shoulder stability: Acro. Shoulderstands. Aerial silks. Partnering. Lifting people over your head.
Also, it’s fun to have an intimidating handshake.
5. Building full-body strength efficiently.
Strength training has been proven to reduce injuries and improve aesthetic competence in dancers. I don’t think I need to list all the benefits here.
But hey check this out:
Dancers have limited time to train outside of class so they’d better be efficient. And what’s more efficient than a deadlift? From your hands to your feet, you need to be engaged.
And when would I find the time to write this blog if I chose to do 5 exercises instead of 1? Deadlifts it is.
6. Easy on the hips and safer on the low back compared to the squat.
I love squats but they can be more problematic for dancers than deadlifts.
Many of us dancers have hip issues, knee issues, pelvic alignment issues. And some of us are built in such a way that make us poorly adapted for a movement like the squat.
Listen to what Dr. Stu McGill says about squats, bone structure and genetics:
I love that video because it illustrates that genetics actually do play a role in how well we’re set up to squat, and that means it’s ok if you can’t squat all the way down, if you need a wider stance or to point your toes slightly out.
Knowing we all have a different structure I tend not to do as much squatting as I do deadlifting with my dance clients. Bilaterally at least. I love single leg squats and split squats.
I definitely want dancers to learn the difference between a squat and a plie, but in dance, we almost only ever use full range hip flexion (like in a deep squat) with the use of turnout and probably compensation from the pelvis and lower back, and rarely with an active intrinsic core. These dancerisms don’t always make for a safe squat, but gives you a great reason to learn the movement properly.
So for reasons of safety and efficiency, if a dancer has creaky knees and a ripped up hip labrum that I don’t know about, I feel much more comfortable with them deadlifting, where they won’t be grinding their hips and loading their knees as much as a squat might allow them to do.
7. Deadlifts works in parallel.
Working in parallel isn’t bad! Give your external rotators a break.
If you lose the ability to internally rotate your hips, you also lose the ability to extend them. If you lose the ability to extend from the hip, you probably compensate by arching your back. Too much of this and your back gets a bit cranky.
Too, working in parallel helps to practice hip joint centration (getting the femur to sit centered in the socket), helping you to also move farther into external rotation. Centered joints just work better that way.
Deadlift in parallel. It’ll do you good.
8. Learning new motor skills is good.
Learning new movement skills that feel weird and are totally different from what you’re used to is a great thing to do. As a dancer, the more movement skills you have in your tool kit the better.
And if it’s a movement skill that also allows you to save lives by lifting cars off people, protect your spine while you dance, and make your bum look nice, all the better.
If you need help learning deadlift technique and are unwilling to hire someone to help you, you should definitely check out one of the many resources Eric Cressey has online. He’s one smart dude, passionate about lifting. Google that shit.
Got any other reasons dancers should deadlift that I missed?